Friday, October 26, 2018

227. Italian director Valerio Zurlini’s last film “Il deserto dei tartari” (The Desert of the Tartars) (1976) (Italy), based on the Italian novel "The Tartar Steppe" by Dino Buzzati: An unforgettable film where cinema proves to be almost as effective as the novel

In life, everyone has to accept the role that was destined for him” 
–words spoken in the film The Desert of the Tartars, words that best describe the essence of the film
The film Desert of the Tartars, when released in 1976 did not win accolades at film festivals outside Italy, not even being nominated at the prestigious Italian Venice Film festival. Over the decades, it has gradually been recognized as a classic and, 37 years after it was made, it was restored and screened at the 2018 Cannes film festival as one.

One could argue that the importance of the film is primarily due to its adaptation of a major literary work The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati published in 1940 in Italian and subsequently translated into English.  Like the movie, the novel bloomed with time. In 1999, the prestigious French daily Le Monde, in its poll, ranked Buzzati’s book as the 29th best book of the century.  The book had become an iconic example of “magic realism” in literature. The book went on to influence the writings of major writers including the Nobel Prize winner J E M Coetzee, the Lebanese-American statistician and financial analyst turned author Nassim Nicolas Taleb (author of The Black Swan, described by The Sunday Times of UK as one of the 12 most-influential books since World War II) and the Booker Prize winner Yann Martel (author of Life of Pi).

The idealistic Lt Drago (Jacques Perrin) arrives on the outskirts of the
Fort Batiani where he will serve for years seeking glory that will elude him

Italian director Valerio Zurlini saw of the opportunity of adapting the novel on screen when its value was lesser known than it is now, realizing the potential of subtle visuals and music on screen to bring the magic realism of the words in the book. Actor Jacques Perrin had procured the film rights of the book from Buzzati. Zurlini corralled the talents of music composer Ennio Morricone, the elegant cinematographer Luciano Tavoli, and a stunning array of top-notch international actors (Max von Sydow, Jean- Louis Trintignant, Vittorio Gassman, Fernando Rey, Jacques Perrin, Helmut Griem, the spaghetti western hero Giuliano Gemma, Philippe Noiret, Francisco Rabal, etc). So were some important Iranian actors of the day included in the film such as Mohamad Ali Keshavarz, who is not listed in the IMdB credits for the film but this fact appears on the Wikipedia page of the Iranian actor.

Lt Drago introduces himself to the officers at Fort Bastiani. The empty chair
is for him.

The Desert of the Tartars, the film, is an almost all male film, save for the initial sequences of the film showing Lt. Drago at home with his mother as he wakes up from sleep to dress up into military uniform. He enthusiastically rides out of town on a Tartar horse, to report at a far away post of the Italian army in the year 1902. It is his first posting in the army.  The brief initial sequences reveal that the young man belongs to a rich and influential family and is respected by another horse-rider on the streets, who accompanies him up to the edge of the town, apparently knowing Lt. Drago’s intent. Not a single other human being or animal is shown in the town. Zurlini intentionally does away with unnecessary social farewells and family. The horse and its rider are the only objects that matter until the rider meets other military men on his journey. 

Lt Drago (right)  interacts with Lt Simeon (Helmut Griem) atop the fort 

Zurlini’s film shows Lt. Drago leaving his town early in the morning without food/provisions on horseback and arriving at the fortress with just a gulp of water/wine provided by Captain Ortiz (von Sydow) whom he meets en route possibly within a day. Drago’s horse drinks water from a stream once. Yet we realize the Bastiani Fort is very far from Lt Drago’s town or any town for that matter. Time is compressed—magic realism is at work.

Zurlini’s major winning decision was the choice of the location to film the story—a fort on the edges of a desert. It was not in Africa on the edges of the Sahara, or even in Ethiopia. The filming was done in Iran while the Shah of Iran was in power, in and around a real fort made of clay—the Bam citadel (Arg-e Bam)—built in the third century AD. The impressive structure—a UNESCO World Heritage site-- was almost totally destroyed by an earthquake in 2003, but the Islamic government of Iran rebuilt it to match its original grandeur. 

(See for the images of the fort as the Zurlini film captured it and how it appears now after restoration post the 2003 earthquake). 

Apparently, Zurlini chose this location after seeing the painting La Torre Rossa by an Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico. All those decisions taken by Zurlini contributed to make The Desert of the Tartars the film classic it is today.

One of the officers at the fort is Maj. Dr. Rovine (Jean- Louis Trintignant),
an enigma treating the maladies of the militia posted at the fort

Not unlike Franz Kafka’s books The Castle, the Buzzati tale is a quixotic look at human desire to achieve glory in life. Lt. Drago, born into a distinguished family, hopes to attain glory in military life, as he is chosen by fate to serve the Italian army at an obscure border station, a castle on the edge of the desert expecting invasion night and day by the Tartars.  Zurlini, who was a Communist, underscores the social divide by looking critically at the at the lives of officers living in luxury and riding horses, while foot soldiers drag heavy  material on command and are punished severely when they step out of line. Time is a critical element that does not seem to exist throughout the film. Only graves and death of soldiers bring time into focus. Officers and soldiers continue to be billeted at the fort for months and years for the sake of being promoted and hopefully gain honour in battle when it happens. There is almost no contact with their families. Any attempt to get a transfer is subtly thwarted, not unlike Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line that followed several decades later, The Desert of the Tartars is less a film about battles but more about battles of the mind and conscience. At the fort, the viewer learns that there was no battle fought so far. Yet as Lt. Drago arrives he sees graves of soldiers with reversed guns or sabres on top of them, according to their ranks. How then did so many die?

Lt Drago is introduced to the General (Philippe Noiret)
by Col. Fillimore (Vittorio Gassman) (center)

The depth of both the book and the film The Desert of the Tartars emerges from the lack of action in a military setting .The questions the film throws up are existential in nature. The idealistic Lt Drago is an anti-hero joining a group of military men, all trying to prepare for battle against a perceived foe, an army that cannot be seen or even confirmed to exist. Buzzati was possibly making a veiled reference to Mussolini’s military campaign in Ethiopia in 1935.  A close examination of Buzzati’s book and Zurlini’s film reveal that the tale is not based on real events but is merely an allegorical and psychological tale.

Officers and soldiers on the look-out duty sometimes spot rider-less horses and riders on horseback. Are they real or imagined? Why are known soldiers killed if they do not know a critical password? Why is the camaraderie of foot soldiers not appreciated by the officers? The film is equally critical of the lives of army officials and their egos of differing nature.

Here are important excerpts of an Italian journalist’s interview with author Buzzati on the Zurlini film
Author Dino Buzzati: "If I were the director - for the soldiers of the Fortezza Bastiani I would not choose a single uniform, but all the most beautiful uniforms in history, as long as they were slightly worn, rather like old flags. I am thinking of the uniforms of the dragoons, the hussars, he musketeers encountered in the pages of Dumas, the Bengal Lancers, like the ones used in a film with Gary Cooper...Of course, together with the uniforms, also different helmets, caps and badges. In other words, a regiment that has never existed but which is universal."
Italian journalist Giulio Nascimbeni: "Which uniform would you have Lieutenant Drogo wear?"
Author Dino Buzzati: "I should dress him up like a Hapsburg officer because Drogo's life is pointless, but full of pride."
(courtesy : trad.Interpres-Giussano) (Ref:
What were the major departures that Zurlini made in the film from the book? The book discusses the ravages of time in the world outside the fort, the fate of Lt. Drago’s family and friends. While Lt Drago became Capt. Drago at the fort, some of his friends and family have died, some have married in his town. When an officer dies in the fort, his body is transported on a gun carriage and taken home to his family for burial. Time stands still within the fort and the film, while in the book the time takes its toll on the denizens of the Italian towns. 

It is well known that David Lean wanted to make the film but one doubts if he could have created the bleak, existential and lonely world of Lt Drago and chosen Bam for the main location. Zurlini made his perfect swan song.

P.S. This critic watched The Desert of the Tartars for the second time after a gap of more than 35 years and was convinced that it belonged to his top 100 films list. It is now listed there--a film that never won a major award outside the country of the director. It is a film that belongs to the world—to Italy, Iran, France and Germany in particular.

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