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January 27, 2006

War - Italian Style


Massacre in Rome/Rappresaglia
George Pan Cosmatos - 1973
NoShame Films Region 1 DVD


Desert of the Tarters/Il Deserto dei Tartari
Valerio Zurlini - 1976
NoShame Films Region 0 DVD

NoShame likes to pair their releases somewhat thematically. In this case, taking a break from their usual genre offerings are two lesser known war films from the Seventies, both international co-productions with some very big stars. While Massacre in Rome represents the first major film by the uneven action director, George Pan Cosmatos, Desert of the Tarters carries the burden of being the only decent DVD available by Valerio Zurlini, a respected filmmaker in Italy virtually unknown in the U.S.

I have read that Cosmatos' best film is Of Unknown Origin. Having an admitted phobia concerning rodents, I'll never know, but I did like Tombstone. Even the awkwardly titled Rambo: First Blood Part II had some rousing moments. The main reason to watch Massacre in Rome is simply to see Richard Burton and Marcello Mastroianni together in the same film. The film is based on a true incident during World War II in which 320 Italians were to be rounded up and executed by the Nazi SS following an attack by partisans that killed 32 German soldiers. Burton portrays the SS Colonel Kappler who in the film has a conflict of conscious in carrying out the orders. Mastroianni is the fictional character of a priest who attempts to stop the massacre by appealing to Burton and the Pope. Character actor Leo McKern outshines everyone in his hammy performance as the piano playing German general who orders the mass executions. The best moment in the film is scene of the partisans carrying out their attack on the soldiers, expecially the nervous moments of anticipation before the troops are heard marching up the street. While Massacre in Rome is not overly distinguished, it isn't the campy embarrassment of Cosmatos' following film, the all-star disaster The Cassandra Crossing.

Desert of the Tarters is the only Zurlini film I have seen at this time. The story is somewhat comparable to Jarhead in that it is about soldiers who dream of military valor, only to see that their terms of service were spent waiting for battles that never happen. The film needs some historical context for American viewers, as the time period begins in 1907 and the soldiers are part of the Astro-Hungarian army. In addition to Max von Sydow pictured above, the film includes Fernando Rey, Francisco Rabal, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Philippe Noiret and Vittorio Gassman. The film was shot in a desert town in Iran that had been abandoned following an earthquake. The exploration of how men define themselves and how military life and rules can be absurd is sometimes less than compelling. Where Zurlini shows his abilities is in his images, many which were made to be seen on a movie screen, and which need to be seen on a large screen to be fully appreciated. There are several long shots where one sees very small characters in the vast desert, a lone rider on horseback, a stray white horse, or distantly seen reflections. One wonderfully composed shot is of a group of soldiers marching in the snow, away from the camera, fading into the vast whiteness. The huge fort looks like nothing less than an oversized sand castle.

As often with NoShame, it is the extras that make their DVDs worthwhile. In the case of Massacre in Rome two disc set, there is a hilarious interview with Cosmatos fumbling with his microphone, followed by an almost Felliniesque interview of Mastroianni walking through a hotel bath surrounded by older men in towels or less. More serious are the interviews with two of the partisans from the actual incident, and an interview with an Italian historian, all of which puts the film into a clearer historic context. Desert of the Tarters has a terrific interview with Luciano Tovoli in which the cinematographer discusses his lengthy career. Unfortunately, the subtitles have errors in English grammer as well as confusing director Vittorio De Seta for the similarly sounding Vittorio De Sica, and rendering Truffaut as "Truffo". The Desert DVD also comes with the original soundtrack album CD by Ennio Morricone, a pensive, piano driven score.

Posted by peter at January 27, 2006 07:03 PM