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November 01, 2022

Le Soldatesse


Valerio Zurlini - 1965
Raro Video Regions ABC

The original Italian title translates as "The Female Soldiers". Zurlini's film also has the English language title of The Camp Followers. There are cultural aspects that make either title loosely accurate, but require understanding that this is a story taking place during World War II from the point of view of an Italian soldier, originating as a novel by an Italian author.

A young lieutenant, Martino, is stationed in Greece, 1942. Greece has surrendered to Italy and Germany. Martino takes the assignment of taking a dozen Greek prostitutes by truck to several Italian outposts in rural cities, where two or three volunteer to work in army run brothels. The women are pragmatic in that they are getting shelter and decent meals rather than the uncertainty of life in bombed out cities. What may be incomprehensible to some contemporary viewers is that the women here do not present themselves as victims or think of themselves as such, but as women who have made certain choices in life and are not shamed by their choice of profession. While the film begins and ends with scenes of war, most of narrative is the road trip, showing the evolving relationships of Martino and his truck driver Sergeant, Castagnoli, with the women he is escorting.

The cast is made up of mid-level European stars as befitting an international co-production. The best known of these is Anna Karina as the cheeriest of the women, with a sly sense of humor. Tomas Milian appears as Martino, opening and closing the film with off-screen narration. Unlike the volatile characters in the crime films and westerns, Milian here is mostly quiet and introspective, questioning his role and the loss of humanity in wartime. The solid and square jawed Mario Adorf plays Castagnoli. Marie Laforet and Lea Massari are two other familiar names from the 1960s.

Fim festival director Marco Muller provides a video introduction to Le Soldatesse. Like several other film scholars, Muller mentions how Zurlini is relatively unknown to contemporary viewers. Of his eight narrative features, only a handful are available in English language subtitled versions in home video formats. As a filmmaker, Zurlini began as a documentarian. His own war experience would be in his late teens, reportedly with the resistance. Le Soldatesse contains elements that are found in other Zurlini films usually with a young protagonist, taking place in or near a war zone, where ideals are questioned but death is certain. Also as in some other films, the location is barren, more often than not inhospitable. Death does not have to be literal. Martino defines himself by what he describes as his mission. Zurlini might roughly be described as an existentialist, with his characters grasping at abstract ideals in spite of the uncertainties of life.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at November 1, 2022 06:30 AM