Il Deserto dei Tartari

(The Desert of the Tartars, Italy - 1976)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Jacques Perrin, Giuliano Gemma, Max von Sydow, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Fernando Rey, Vittorio Gassman, Philippe Noiret, Helmet Griem, Francisco Rabal
Genre: Drama/War
Director: Valerio Zurlini
Screenplay: Jean-Louis Bertucelli, Andre G. Brunelin, & Valerio Zurlini from Dino Buzzati's novel
Cinematography: Luciano Tovoli
Composer: Ennio Morricone
Runtime: 148 minutes

Perhaps the best manner to approach a film about everything is to deceptively make it be about nothing? Desert of the Tartars’ subject is no less than the purpose of life, depicting the seeming lack thereof through the removal of events and resolutions. What we are left with is a monotonous repetitive cycle that may or may not bring us closer to attaining recognition.

You can put everything you have to into your work, but it may not give you much more chance of getting promoted than getting fired. When a job above you finally opens up you may get it because you are the best person for the job, you come cheaper, or there’s no one else to give it to. When a job closes you may lose yours because you are the worst worker, you cost too much, or there’s no one else they can get rid of. You spend your life seeking validation from others, but for the most part you never truly know why you do or don’t get it, and you probably believe whatever makes it easiest to sleep at night. Ultimately you can control your own effort and try to control your outlook on the results.

The poster boys for futility, the military, are the focus of Desert of the Tartars, though it could be about any daily grind. In fact, though novelist Dino Buzzatti had the misfortune of spending over a year in the service, his inspiration was the constant toil of his current journalist job. In any case, life is wasted waiting for something to happen that will give it some meaning.

Desert of the Tartars is a work against genre if there ever was one. When the subject is a bunch of troops the audience expects them to fight, to use their guns and horses to provide some adventure. Desert denies us the expected battles, which no matter what come off as pro war to the certain percentage of the population that chooses to view them as such. This refusal to deliver “what’s advertised” may make Desert the first truly anti-war film I’ve seen. Previously Kon Ichikawa’s The Burmese Harp came the closest due to its message of make music not war. However, Ichikawa’s gem still features the slaughter of many when harpist Mizushima is unable to convince another Japanese troop to take his unit’s lead and surrender to the British rather than be gunned down.

The comparisons to Michelangelo Antonioni are the most obvious due to the focus on alienation and emptiness, the sparse dialogue, and the setting being a primary character. Cinematographer Luciano Tovoli had already filmed two of Antonioni’s films, his rarely seen documentary China and his more well known but until recently also neglected masterpiece The Passenger. That said, an equally good comparison might be Budd Boetticher minus the climactic gunfight. Boetticher crafted his westerns so there was no real action, yet we are made to believe there would be because the characters were always prepared for the inevitable. In Boetticher’s work there’s a certain dread of the action. Hero Randolph Scott always manages to have everyone against him, unless he’s got someone in tow to bog him down, and we figure there’s no way he should be able to make it out alive. Desert of the Tartars is designed to make you almost as impatient as the soldiers. Though we grow to fear it because we see the men gradually slipping, we are inclined to hope for some action because in the long run a little skirmish might save more lives than it takes. Maybe that makes it less anti-war than I’m saying, but I think not because we first and foremost wish they’d do the logical thing and abandon the post.

The soldiers have surrendered everything in their lives to protect their country, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. These aren’t a bunch of poor kids that struck a bargain because it’s the only way they can better themselves through further education. These guys had money, family, and a woman waiting for them. They want there to be some reason to give it up, but they wind up stationed at an outpost on the outskirts of the empire, spending their lives guarding a border that’s really guarded by a huge desert. The feared Tartars are an enemy that perhaps no one has ever seen. Luckily there’s been peace for so long that the only one (now crippled up) man at the fort, Nathanson (legendary Fernando Rey who was almost 60 at the time of filming), has been active long enough to have been in combat. The question is whether there’s any accomplishment in doing something if it’s never recognized. There won’t be any medals unless they fight, but that’s out of their hands. Just as you can’t blame soldiers for obeying orders and fighting in a bad war, you can’t blame them for obeying orders and not fighting in any war. These guys could take satisfaction in knowing they guarded their country for however many years, but it has to be a personal decision.

The film begins with the main character Drogo (Jacques Perrin) making the journey to Fort Bastiano. He’s a young man full of anticipation, certain this is the first step toward inevitable prestige and glory. He’s as perceptive as he is ambitious, so he immediately wants to be reassigned. He sees there’s something wrong with his senior soldiers, they’re filled with hopelessness and riddled by self-doubt. They are not old men if you go by their birth certificate, but they seem 30 years older than they really are.

This is a violent film in a sense, but the violence is all internal, mental. All the men can do is be prepared and on the look out. Day in and day out they drill and watch, wait for something that may never come. Few people really want to go head on with the enemy, but futbol would become the world’s least popular sport if the teams practiced every day but never played a game. These guys get to the point where they just need a result one way or another, they need to know how they match up, if they are good enough or not. But they’ve been forced to wait so long any action would almost certainly be a letdown.

We create a battle in the absence of one. The fight is waiting for the enemy, which is much more difficult because it goes on for all eternity. Monotony and repetition takes its toll. Boredom increases and depression sets in, you lose your will, mind, and/or healthy. You long so badly for something to materialize your mind eventually obliges, but the shame of Hortiz (Max Von Sydow) sounding the alarm for phantom troops not only haunts him, it keeps a perpetual black cloud over the fort. One wonders is someone would have the guts to sound the alarm if the Tartars actually showed up or if they’d be upon the fort by the time the soldiers could agree it wasn’t another mirage.

Time has a way of quelling ambition. You aim for the sky when you are young, but as you age you become willing to settle for less and less until you’ll settle for something, perhaps anything. Valerio Zurlini’s films often deal with politics shaping the destiny of individuals, which is the case early on as the transfers Drogo is promised by various higher ups never materialize. Later he has his chance, but the one thing he cares about is being there when they Tartars finally come. He couldn’t live with himself if he missed it, and by now he’s already given his health as well as his will to live.

The other important character is Major Mattis (Giuliano Gemma), a sadistic fascist. He theoretically clings to regulations because it’s all these isolated men have to go by, in 1907 you can’t exactly ring the Secretary of Defense for a judgement call. But really the regulations provide his symbolic recognition. It’s his Holy Bible. He can prove to himself he did good by knowing he followed The Word to a T. Mattis is something of a comical character; he’s a nightmare but you laugh at his misplaced earnestness. He’s constantly shown to lack even a shred of common sense, judgement being outside the realm of his black and white universe.

The most memorable segment comes when a white horse materializes. The sentries can only do what they always do, watch and wait. Finally that night one of the soldiers sneaks out of the outpost, crosses the Tartar border, and retrieves the horse. He identifies himself at the gate, admitting his “crime”, and asking for reentry, but rather than open the gate the sentry shoots him right between the eyes. Finally a chance to use his training! Everyone is horrified except Mattis, who claims the man was a traitor for leaving the outpost, and they’ll be lucky if the Tartars don’t cite them for a border violation. In the case the cake needed icing, he brags about the perfect shot, noting he trained the sentry as self validation of his own teaching skills.

The cast is an international all-star team that delivers as you’d expect. In addition to the 2 ½ hour running time allowing Zurlini to put over the existential despair and stultifying ennui, it allows him to develop several characters on an emotional level. Once again this is deceptive because the characters start out as types, and come to similar ends. The skill of Zurlini’s filmmaking lies in depicting slight change amidst overwhelming similarity. It’s a highly sensitive work where we piece together a portrait through minute details. His careful shading shows us their individuality, and have an idea what they once were and could have been if they hadn’t succumbed to the lack of approval.

Zurlini was a painting expert and critic, making Tovoli a good cinematographer for him because he uses paintings as his basis as well. Tovoli tries to give every scene additional meaning(s) through the framing and lighting, and cites his use of monochromatic light as the primary source of the films metaphysical feeling. Tovoli is one of the unsung great cinematographers. This is the man who shot Dario Argento’s Suspiria, no less than the most beautiful horror film ever, and unfortunately one that will probably never be topped because it was the final usage of the original 3-strip Technicolor process. His work with Argento (also the brilliant Tenebrae) emphasizes beauty where you wouldn’t expect to find it, and frankly given the grizzly subject matter perhaps shouldn’t. Here Tovoli’s work stays with the subject matter, increasingly limiting the possibilities. Every frame is worthy of viewing, but in following the life of Drogo the film starts out colorful and winds up a muted monotone brown. It starts off expansive as Drogo makes his first step toward greatness and winds up claustrophobic as Drogo remains trapped in Fort Bastiano.

The ancient fortress is really the Bam Citadel in Iraq, which was the world’s largest adobe building until an earthquake decimated it in 2003. Built before 500 B.C., the 180,000 square meter structure boasts walls 1815 meters long. Tovoli films it as a labyrinth that functions as a kind of prison. The soldiers aren’t technically captives, but for different reasons neither them nor us can comprehend how to escape.

Ennio Morricone adds to the anti-genre bend, providing a score that probably has none of the characteristics you would associate with his work. The popularity of his flamboyant Spaghetti Western scores was such that in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s if a film even had a horse you’d expect to hear something that sounded like his work on the Man With No Name trilogy. They’d throw in a harmonica and you’d start thinking it was Morricone even when it wasn’t. Morricone is supposedly more comfortable with spare scores, and working with Zurlini gave him a perfect opportunity to create one. He brings out the melancholy and repetition, limiting the number of instruments used in each song as well as the range. It’s a simplistic score with a steady tempo. Two contrasting instruments are used to build anticipation, and time delayed repeated chords to create fear. The OST that’s included with the No Shame DVD isn’t likely to be anyone’s favorite Morricone as a standalone, but it’s a very effective score that proves he can do different things when asked and is willing to stay in the background even though he’s a star.

One interesting aspect of the film is that the soldiers rank becomes increasingly meaningless as the disparity between the men withers. Time has a way of making everyone equal, unfortunately the equality is loneliness and poor physical and mental health.



* Copyright 2007 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *