Saturday, December 09, 2006


Sometimes I feel like a fairly jaded movie buff, in the sense that I know all the big names and all the big movies and there's nothing out there in left field to surprise me anymore. So when I do get surprised, I'm all the more ecstatic, but then I fear I'll risk making too much out of my discovery. I read about this film in the New York Times earlier this year on the occasion of its release on DVD. I'd never heard of the film or the director (Valerio Zurlini) but the review piqued my interest and I rented the disc from Netflix. It's turned out to be my favorite film of the year so far. Based on a well-known Italian novel, it's an almost Kafkaesque story about war and the military mindset which I would think still has relevance today. Jacques Perrin, newly graduated from military school, is gung ho about his appointment to the exotic outpost of Bastiano, but when he gets there, he finds an odd group of enervated officers and stoic soldiers who have nothing to do but watch the wasteland around them, in case of an invasion from the North Kingdom. The large, ruined battlements, as big as a small city, and the bleak, chilly surroundings (a windswept desert with snowy mountains in the distance) are lovely in an almost surreal way, but one can see how such isolation and inactivity would have a negative effect on the men. Everyone goes through the motions of military drills and secret passwords and ritualized dinners and some almost thrive in the atmosphere, but most of the men wind up slowly dispirited. Perrin is told by officer Max von Sydow that years ago, he had an almost mystical sighting of a Tartar rider on a white horse; it turned out to be a false alarm, but we spend the rest of the film waiting to see a white horse, and we're not disappointed. Perrin's enthusiasm wears out and the post doctor (Jean-Louis Trintignant) offers to get him a medical transfer, but Perrin decides not to use it--later, this becomes the basis for a Catch-22 plot twist when Perrin actually does become sick, and even though the troop force is being reduced, he can't get the transfer because he didn't use his previous one (and this is, of course, not the only darkly ironic twist the film takes). Some viewers might complain that this is one of those long foreign-language films in which nothing happens, but it's an episodic film in which lots of things happen, just not the kinds of things we expect in a war movie. The narrative covers many years, ending with Perrin as a sick old man, old before his time, perhaps, since we get no objective sense of how many years have passed. The ending is a bit predictable but still quite effective. Members of the fine cast include Helmut Griem (the decadent Baron from CABARET), Vittorio Gassman, Francisco Rabal, and Fernando Rey. The film was shot in a deserted town in Iran; I never figured out if the film's locale was supposed to be real or not, but given the almost allegorical tone, it doesn't matter. At the risk of sounding overly enthusiastic, I strongly suggest this gem to anyone looking for something a little challenging. A memorable line: when Perrin says he's sure he's at Bastiano by mistake, he is told, "We're all somewhere by mistake." [DVD]

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