Parable and Rumour in the Desert
Doug Anderson | Miami Beach, Florida United States | 07/19/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This film is based on a novel by Dino Buzzati called The Tartar Steppe (1945). And its a great novel. Much of what Dino Buzzati writes would be classified as fantasy but this novel has a pellucid realism to it that anchors it in a kind of unspecified present. The novel begs comparison with Franz Kafka's more gothic parables, Albert Camus' The Plague, and Julien Gracq's very similarly focused The Opposing Shore. The novel is existential and it examines man's capacity to cope with the meaningless of his existence but it does so in such a unique way. Never in Buzzati's novel do we feel manipulated by any heavy-handed philosophy, rather the appeal of the novel is its unobtrusively plain, though beautiful, style and structure that nonetheless capture your imagination.
Valerio Zurlini is not a name you are likely to have heard before. His adaptation of Buzzati's book --The Desert of the Tartar (1976)-- was his last film and he executes the project so perfectly that I am very curious to investigate his earlier work.
A quick glance at the cast list (Max Von Sydow, Philipe Noiret) will show that the film is full of top-notch actors, but the real star of this film is the desert and the fort itself that seems to have grown out of the desert. The desert and the fort have immense mythic allure and though there is nothing fantastic about the desert or the fort the effect this location and structure have on the soldiers stationed there is profound and disturbing. The fort is like a mirage on the precipice of a vast desert but the fort and desert are real and men must live in this location for years at a stretch. Most men would find that being assigned to such a location would be a death sentence and this is what Lt. Drogo thinks when he first sets eyes upon the desert fortress that looks like a forgotten ruin. But soon the fortress (and its mysterious history), its eccentric occupants and the way they deal with the various rumours of foreign troops maneuvering in the distance, and the desert itself seduce the young Lt. into staying for longer and longer stretches until we realize that Lt. Drogo, like so many soldiers before him, will never leave. The film can be viewed as a parable about military duty, but it can also be viewed as a parable about commitments of any kind. Like any good parable there is no one penultimate reading. The movie works on the viewer like the desert and fort work on the soldiers; at times you find you are bored and you desperately want those Tartar invaders to finally make an appearance but despite the fact that next to nothing happens you cannot take your eyes away.
What drama there is takes place within the fort, mostly but not exclusively (I don't want to spoil the film so I won't reveal too much). Most of the drama is between the soldiers themselves. Each soldier seems to suffer from some kind of debility; some soldiers seem to suffer from some kind of virus that the fort doctor is convinced is caused or aggravated by the damp conditions of the fort itself. Other soldiers seem to suffer from various forms of hallucinations or visions of grandeur which seem hopelessly misplaced in the vast emptiness of the desert.
It is fascinating to watch Lt. Drogo slowly age before our very eyes. When he first arrives he is an enthusiastic and ambitious young officer who wants to prove himself in battle but with the passing years he seems to become more and more resigned to his fate. Thus you can also read this film as simply a parable of man's life tenure.
However you view the film its a spellbinding experience. I think the film cannot be reduced to any one reading; it seems to elude any literal meaning we might attempt to assign to it.
Highly recommend both book and film.
A mesmerizing movie of epic proportions with none of an epic
C. O. DeRiemer | San Antonio, Texas, USA | 09/12/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)
"The Desert of the Tartars is an epic movie where nothing happens over 2 hours and 21 minutes...except to show us the gradual and fascinating disintegration of a group of military officers in an isolated outpost of empire who are full of pride and who lead lives as pointless as their careers. It helped me understand things better when I looked up the author, Dino Buzzati. His book was published in 1940 shortly after he had served some time in Ethiopia as Mussolini postured and killed his way to a new Roman empire. Many thought the book was a veiled reference to the sort of empty grandiosity Mussolini embodied. The book became widely available only after WWII.
Here we have a group of officers, none of whom have ever seen combat except for one who can barely move, awaiting an attack that may never happen, whose purpose in their lives can only come about through glorious battle. And some of these officers are convinced that some sort of activity far off in the desert can sometimes be seen. Can it be the ghosts and dreams of the long-ago Tartar invaders? They talk of the "enemy" as if it were some anonymous thing. The atmosphere is claustrophobic, with the lives of these men governed by punctilious manners and regulations. These are officers whose code of conduct has them practice fencing with each other while their men wait behind machine guns.
We see all this through Lieutenant Drogo (Jacques Perrin) who arrives at Fort Bastiano, a great hulking desert fortress made of mud brick, in 1907 on his first posting. "Beyond the fort there is a desert," he is told. "And then, nothing. The desert of the Tartars. They may even have crossed it, centuries ago, but they vanished after destroying the ancient city. The desert has kept their name. But the older that history is, the more men change it into legend. So we don't know what's true and what isn't."
In my view, the sad heart of the film is Captain Horvitz, played with great power by Max von Sydow. Years ago, Horvitz had seen the lights of the enemy, had given the alarm and no attack occurred. He has refused all opportunity to leave Fort Bastiano. Years pass and he becomes commanding officer. In time, he is sent away. "I hope you will be in command of the fort when the enemy will attack," he tells Captain Drogo as he prepares to leave, "and I know it will, even if I was ordered to ignore it. What nonsense and what disregard. I might have been useful in wartime. I'm so regretful. I waited for such a long time...without knowing why..."
Many officers we met with Lt. Drogo have died, become unbalanced, and in many cases have been simply sent away as their superiors gradually have reduced the strength of the fort. More time slips away and Drogo, now second in command, gray and ill, is in turn sent away from the fort. Drogo had become as fixated on Fort Bastiano and the "enemy" as Horvitz became....and yet now there seems there may be a genuine attack.
Yet, when Drogo was still new to the fort he was convinced that his posting was an error. The sympathetic doctor gives him a letter with a medical reason for a new assignment. "You are wise to leave," Doctor Major Rovin tells him. "I was sent here by mistake," Drogo tries to explain. "Here or elsewhere," Rovin tells Drogo, "we're all somewhere by mistake." This sense of passionless inevitability runs through the film.
One would think that nearly two-and-a-half hours of this would be tedious. It isn't. The director, Valerio Zerlini, explores some serious themes. Is there an enemy or not? Has the fort been purposefully weakened for unknown schemes? Where actually is the fort located? (It seems it takes only three days by horseback to reach the middle of the desert after leaving the green hills and valleys of Italy...or is it even Italy?) I don't think any of this matters. The film, for me, is an allegory of how easily men can slip into the pointlessness of duty, pride, obedience and glory. Well, this approach may be a bit existential, but we can make what we want of it as we see the progression of disintegration played off against the essential meaninglessness of these men's lives.
What helps the movie immeasurably are two other factors. First, there is a whole roster of first-rate, skilled European actors, all of whom know how to underplay. In addition to von Sydow, we have Vittorio Gassman, Helmut Griem, Philippe Noiret, Fernando Rey, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Giuliano Gemma, among others. Second, there is the looming presence of the desert and Fort Bastiano itself. Much of the film was shot in Iran in the ancient city of Bam. Fort Bastiano is actually Arg-e-Bam, the Citadel of Bam. The citadel and the ancient town next to it were built of mud brick and straw eons ago. When I saw the first shot of Fort Bastiano I thought I must be seeing some early version of Computer Generated Overkill. The Citadel of Bam was huge, towering over the ancient ruins. Tragically, a massive earthquake hit Iran in 2003 with Bam at the epicenter. The only thing remaining of the Citadel, literally, is a huge mound of clay-brick rubble. Iran says the Citadel will be rebuilt, but it will take years. It is a huge cultural loss.
In my opinion, the movie is definitely worth having. The DVD picture is excellent."
Mystery and Melancholy of a Fortress.
Ted Byrd | 12/05/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)
"In terms of the manners of its characters, 'Desert of the Tartars' seems a little old-fashioned. The officers in this remote stronghold of Bastiani Fortress dine each night together at a long table, in dinner jackets, entertained by a musical ensemble featuring lovely violin performances. The speech and behavior of the officers is polite and impeccable, adhering to an idealistic code which is so evident in their manner that it requires no elucidation.
But beyond the fortress stretches a limitless waste of desert, alien, beautiful, and terrifying. The situation of the fortress facing this terrible desert, beyond which there is supposed to be nothing, conforms to no specific location on earth, but is an epitome of man's furthest outpost into the enigma of the unknown.
A young lieutenant feels his assignment to Bastiani has been a mistake, an obvious dead-end post for a military career. But he discovers there is a mysterious and deadly hold, on both the officers and men stationed there, a strange attraction which causes them to stay on there for long years.
The official policy is that there is nothing beyond the desert, and therefore no threat. Any dissenting view is rigorously discouraged. But there are persistent rumors of sightings of distant horses, which appear to be "Tartar horses". The young lieutenant has his own personal experience of viewing a remote manifestation of an unknown presence in the far mountains.
The film was rich and full in its development of the characters of these men on the borderland, who wait and watch year after year, not wanting to be absent when the unknown enemy finally reveals itself and launches an attack on the fortress.
There is a vast difference in the personalities of the officers, but they are bound together by an unspoken gentleman's agreement, a tacit understanding that all the strict rules and regulations are merely a matter of form, meaningless in themselves, but arbitrarily necessary as a common defense against the enemy. The exception to this mutual understanding is a ruthless, crassly ambitious major, too literal-minded to understand the subtleties that bind the other officers and men to this post.
It is plain that this fortress, along with its even remoter, smaller outpost, is a metaphorical or symbolic representation of a central mystery of human existence. There is a contingent of civilized men who are drawn to the unknown, who forsake the comforts and bland certainties of the less adventurous who are content to remain in security of the towns.
Far from being a simple allegory, this story is complex and ambiguous. On a literal level there is great beauty and nobility in the deep respect shown for ritual and ceremony against the backdrop of the bleak, brooding, inhuman desert. On the psychological level, there is much to fire the wonder and imagination of the viewer. What is the true nature of the brotherhood of these officers? What is the deeper significance of the fortress which, according to the company doctor, harbors an ancient and deadly disease? Why is the unknown represented as an enemy which is biding it's time, inexorably gathering it's forces for an attack?
This is not a simplistic tale in which jutting-chinned heroes forcefully rip away the veil of mystery from their foe and impose their sense of justice on the blighters. It is a sensitive portrayal of the nobility of a few men who uphold the conventions of civilization, even while glimpsing across the desert, evidence of the terrible unknown.
The cinematography of this film was influenced by the Greek painter Giorgio de Chirico, whose early paintings were filled with a sense of strange psychological enigma and melancholy. A wonderful cast provided an authenticity to the knightly bond between the very diverse characters who inhabited this dreamlike landscape."
Trevor Willsmer | London, England | 06/08/2007
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Very little happens in Valerio Zurlini's The Desert of the Tartars two-and-a-half hours, which is exactly the point, as Jacques Perrin's initially ambitious young officer is posted to a magnificent desert fort overlooking the spectacular ruins of an ancient city on a non-existent border where soldiers wait endlessly for a possibly imagined enemy to give a sense of focus and purpose to their lives. Yet the Tartars remain the stuff of rumours and legends, the visually striking fort (Arge-E-Bam in Iran) a quietly malignant place, its very walls infested with an unidentifiable disease that slowly destroys its inhabitants. Yes, we're in allegory territory here, with the human condition distilled down to waiting and planning for a moment that may never happen, with all the malaise that entails, and it's a film you're either going to be drawn into or find two-and-a-half hours of pure tedium. One of the few films to show how cold and inhospitable the desert can be, there are vague similarities to the considerably less successful Fort Saganne in the way it undermines the expectations of a Beau Geste-like adventure in favour of the malaise and unrealised expectation that was really the stuff of a career-killing desert posting. With an impressively varied international cast - Max Von Sydow, Phillipe Noiret, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Helmut Griem and Fernando Rey among them - and boasting fine cinematography by Luciano Tovoli, it's not for all tastes but it certainly casts a spell on those it ensnares.
NoShame's DVD offers a fine 1.85:1 transfer, though there is some slight droppoff and wobble in the soundtrack (more music than dialogue). Extras include a 35 minute interview with Tovoli, trailer, stills gallery and a bonus CD of Ennio Morricone's brooding, oppressive score."