Ettore Scola returns to the period and setting of “A Special Day” and the ensemble structure of “The Family” with “Unfair Competition,” a bitter account of the rise of anti-Semitism in late-’30s Italy as reflected through the experiences of two Roman retailers. Likely to be dubbed “Life Is Miserable” in the wake of Roberto Benigni’s hit, the film lumbers along without distinction in the early reels, burdened by laborious pacing and lifeless, old-school direction. But the understated drama gradually summons power thanks to its strong leads and slowly amplified sense of injustice, building to a sobering and affecting conclusion. Modest offshore arthouse exposure seems probable.
Story hinges on the introduction in 1938 of Mussolini’s race legislation, which established rigorous separatist codes that forced Jews out of their jobs, homes, schools and public life and into ghettos or internment camps.
The laws were put into force only gradually. New directives were published each week, starting with a ban on Jews having radios in their homes, then a law forbidding them to employ Aryan housekeeping staff, proceeding to more-extreme restrictions.
Main point of the screenplay by Scola and veteran Furio Scarpelli, written with their respective offspring Silvia Scola and Giacomo Scarpelli, is the obtuse indifference and selfish distraction that allowed non-Jewish Italians at the time to turn a blind eye to the discrimination.
Principal characters are rival shopkeepers, both of whom live with their families above their stores in the shadow of St. Peter’s dome. Umberto (Diego Abatantuono), a gentile, is a tailor with an elegant wood-paneled shop, losing customers to Jewish neighbor Leone (Sergio Castellitto), who continues to expand the range of his no-frills haberdashery emporium, overlapping with Umberto’s wares and undercutting his prices.
Perhaps deliberately, Scola and his co-scripters introduce the two families’ many members in a way that makes it difficult at first to distinguish who’s who and to which clan they belong. Families are interconnected via the romance between Umberto’s adolescent son, Paolo (Elio Germano), and Leone’s daughter, Susanna (Gioia Spaziani), and by the friendship between the two men’s inseparable infant boys, Pietruccio (Walter Dragonetti) and Lele (Simone Ascani).
Though it’s overused, a diary voiceover by Pietruccio giving the child’s perspective on events supplies a lighter tone. Scola clearly intends to heighten the impact of dramatic developments to come with a lack of incident in the early section, but result feels plodding and dull.
Things improve on that score when a casual incident awakens Umberto’s conscience. Sick of seeing his display ideas appropriated and new-season lines introduced ahead of time by Leone, Umberto argues violently with the storekeeper, culminating with a derogatory remark about his Jewishness that’s overheard by a cop.
In the questioning that follows, Umberto’s realization that his origins ensure more favorable treatment than Leone sparks the beginning of a sense of solidarity that grows with each new injustice visited upon his neighbors. The subdued final act packs a solemn emotional punch.
While the sensitizing of Umberto seems too automatic, Abatantuono’s warm, measured performance makes it credible. Castellitto also convinces as a resigned man who endures his pain in silence, though his crafty merchant character initially borders on stereotype.
Of the extended ensemble cast, Sabrina Impacciatore registers strongly as Umberto’s Fascist-sympathizing sales clerk with a crush on her boss.
Scola’s approach at times is over-explanatory and educational. Uneven Italian dubbing of Gerard Depardieu, playing Umberto’s liberal-minded schoolteacher brother, and fellow French thesps Claude Rich and Jean Claude Brialy also detracts.
Filmed entirely on sets at Cinecitta, the $8 million production — hefty by Italo standards — fails to make a virtue of its artificial studio look. However, it boasts solid craftsmanship in the detailed production design and costuming.
Going against the usual taste for over-emphatic scoring in Italian films, Scola’s regular composer Armando Trovajoli contributes a delicate musical comment. Lenser Franco Di Giacomo’s work could have been less sluggish, but the film’s color schemes have a rich period feel, appearing desaturated, then recolorized in soft sepia tones and faded pastels.