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.In France,when the movie was released,a lot of critics snubbed
it,putting disparagement on it,because it could not hold a candle to
Buzzati's masterpiece.But as Jean Cocteau said,critics judge art
works,and they don't know they are judged by them!
Valerio Zurlini and his producer-star Jacques Perrin were faithful to the novel.They succeeded in bringing to the screen one of the most abstract ,metaphoric,and also depressing literature masterworks of the last century.Perrin is well cast as Drogo ,the young officer waiting,waiting,for something that never comes:the tartars attack symbolizes everything you long for,and when it seems it's happening,it's too late.Once proud and brave and full of great expectations,the hero becomes humble and bent,under the burden of the years passing by,inexorably,leaving him a human wreck.
In this desolate landscape,in this infinite space,man is not numbered like every grain of sand.The grandiose shots of the desert,the mountains and this strange abandoned city,which seems to contain some mysteries of ancient times,all this contrasts terribly with man's fate:see his ridiculous ceremonies,his military iron discipline,his derisory and laughable "career",he who's only a breath in Time,only a little dandruff in an universe that eludes him.
Zurlini's movie is not totally satisfying when recreating the erosion of time.In the book,it was unbearable.But he made a movie any director should be proud of,a movie that must be seen because the task was hard,and the results are sometimes sumptuous.
Perrin portrays Drogo with a great conviction.As a producer,he had serious difficulties,he had to fight to convince ,and the end of the movie -which was intended to be ,like in the book,in an inn- could not be filmed because the actor/producer was running out of money.Give
this movie a chance ,the people who made it did their share!
A film over two hours long set in a remote desert fort, with an all
male cast and no action, may seem a daunting prospect, however THE DESERT
THE TARTARS is a strikingly memorable experience. The characters are full
suppressed emotion and inner turmoil, the strange surrealistic fort a
metaphor of their spiritual imprisonment, and the huge expanse of
surrounding desert a tangent reminder, day by day, and year by year, of
their fears and lost aspirations.
Time passes imperceptibly, and our dashing young lieutenant, played by Jacques Perrin and surrounded by a stellar male cast, ages and weakens as the desert and the constraints of life in the fort strips away his physical strength and inner resolve. He yearns to free himself of the debilitating fort's influence, but finds himself transfixed by the mystical challenges of the landscape, and the perceived danger from the unseen enemy beyond.
The dust of the desert, the artificiality of the military life within the walls of the fort, the rituals and uniforms, the unspoken fears, the friendships and animosities between brother officers, the authority that seldom explains it's decisions, the half-recalled memories of a former life, and the ever present foreboding created by the shadows of the desert, shadows that sometimes give rise to visions of a lurking threat that may, or may not, be hidden in those shadows.
Exemplary colour widescreen photography is aided immeasurably by the haunting themes written by Ennio Moricone, and at the disquieting and ominous conclusion of the film, we are indeed completely mesmerized by an impressionistic, visionary spectacle that will haunt us for a long time after the final credits roll.
Excellent, haunting movie, with great actors, but it falls short of the book. This I suspect often happens when reading a book before seeing the film. The book, the Desert of the Tartars by Dino Buzzati is an allegory for a man life and destiny. A man's hope to greatness, to glory, to accomplish great deeds. But as time passes, greatness is never attained, glory never achieved. Most of us us settle down in our routine. Drogo full of youth and enthusiasm set up for Fort Bastiano, the fortress protecting the border of his country. With the passing of time the precise, monotonous routine in the fortress becomes his life. He returns to the city and to his fiancé, but the city life does not please him. This part of the book is never shown in the movie. He returns to the fortress with hope of greatness if the Tartars ever attack and the star of glory to defend his country will shine upon him. Time inexorably goes by. Rumors of sights of Tartars prowling in the desert below are just rumors. Drogo is, we are getting older. His health starts to fail. But there is still hope in his hearth that the enemy may come. Then suddenly the enemy comes. The Tartars are invading, the desert under Fort Bastiano is full of them, the war has started, and while Drogo is carried away a young inexperienced officer coming from the city will have the honor and the glory of defending his country. Drogo's carriage is taking him to the city below where the greatest of all Enemies is awaiting for him.
This extraordinary film sprang from a fertile time in world cinema. In the USA the medium was experiencing heady creativity but in Italy such exceptional ability was expected. To see it now is to witness movie making at its most devoted and personal. Zurlini casts it brilliantly. The acting by an acclaimed cast is both restrained and gut wrenching. Adapted from a classic novel, which I have not read, it leaves its literary provenance behind while still managing to address what are normally literary obsessions: existentialism, nihilism and romantic futility. Visually the film is stunning and makes a mockery of the ghastly special effects which in a film like Gladiator make the world seem like a landscape of precious celluloid grey. It is filmed in the middle east in a now earthquake-torn ancient town. If one didn't know such a place existed one would think that special effects had accomplished impossible beauty. But no, its all real. And all spectacularly realised.
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.
A film that marked me forever, If you've never seen this movie, than you have to see it, it deserves a 10/10 (A )note. I'm looking forward to see this film once again in my life and it will be the spleen. In my life there were 2 film that marked me this one and The Woman Of The Dunes.
This film features one of the most extraordinary locations I've ever seen on
film,apparently shot in Southeast Iran, these giant, snow-capped mountains
loom in the distance while closer, a desert fortress rises above what
appears to be the remains of abandoned, ancient ruins. In this setting, an
outpost on the edge of the desert of the Tartars, overseeing rock, sand, and
a perpetual mist, the extraordinary external visual world stands for the
internalized world that evolves over time, soldiers at the outpost suffer
from mysterious ailments that scientists can not name or cure, a metaphor
for fear of the unknown, which eats at the inner core of these soldiers who
live in a world abandoned by time. The men train for the inevitable attack
that lurks just beyond their eyesight or understanding, there is a sort of
desert fever that kicks in, so it is not really known if there is an army
out there or if it's all in their mind. The stunning,visual world has been
created, once again, from the brilliant mind of Valerio Zurlini.
The film reminded me of two others, Tarkovsky's `Solaris,' where men are sent to outer space only to discover that the planet surface mysteriously interacts with each man's internal memories, also a recent Hungarian film by Peter Gothar called `The Outpost,' an absurdist, Kafkaesque journey that as one engineer gets promoted and travels farther and farther away into the outer reaches of the country, bribing nearly everyone she meets just to get there, leaving the comforts of anything remotely resembling normal, and instead discovers a peculiar outpost at the end of the world where the mind plays terrible tricks.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
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.
The fact that this film ever got made is a marvel. Some of the biggest stars
of European cinema got together with Zurlini to make this one-of-a-kind film
about boredom and existential despair. The profound emptiness lurking within
every man as he tries to cope with an absurd existence and which always
looks for an escape through some distraction or mindlessness (such as war,
pointless work, perversion, etc.)rather than face the frightful prospect of
coming to terms with itself IS the subject of this film and NO COMPROMISE
WHATSOEVER is made to please the audience.
The pace of the film is slow and methodical, deliberately making the audience become as bored and uncomfortable as the protagonists. However, if you know this or sense it, you are no longer bored but aware of the film's intentions and fascinated. When the finale comes to bring together all that went before, the understaed effect is overwhelming. One shot in particular, that of the Tartars suddenly appearing over the hills way out in the distance is so fantastic that it becomes etched in your mind forever. The story is about a military officer (Jacques Perrin) sent to a fort somewhere in the middle of a god-for-saken desert where the endless similarity of the days nearly drive him nuts to the point where he comes to hope for a war or attack of some kind to change things. He's hoping for anything that'll distract him from feeling the emptiness inside and can't find it. The plot is the laboratory experiment by which Zurlini expounds his view of the eternal isolation of man from man and the essential absurdity of existence. Some of the most bizzarely fascinating location photography is featured but the tone of the film is intentionally 'dry' and 'non-poetic' (unlike the very poetic way his previous film "The Professor" starring Alain Delon was made, for instance)and most of the stars (except for Von Sydow and Trintignant) have relatively small roles. Trintignant is pretty hilarious in his role as the fort's doctor.
Overall, "Desert of the Tartars" is a not-too-successful (its impact is nowhere near the level achieved by Antonioni's "The Passenger", for instance) but still thoroughly fascinating experiment in uncompromising dramatic cinema.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I read Dino Buzzati's novel The Tartar Steppe in 2008. The delicacy and
depth with which it tackled ideas and feelings central to human
existence, plus the beauty and weightlessness of the writing, made it
one of my favourite novels. Then I discovered Valerio Zurlini, an
Italian director unknown to me, had adapted it to cinema. For more than
a year I relished in the idea of watching this movie.
Long before watching it I had already heard Ennio Morricone's score, which brought to mind the sadness and nostalgia the novel produced in me. My interest grew as I contemplated seeing how the movie and music would complement each other. I've now seen the movie, and although my favourite tracks don't play as much as I wish they did, Il Deserto dei Tartari will remain forever as one of the most enjoyable and most beautiful film experiences of my life.
The movie follows the novel closely plot-wise: young Lieutenant Drogo leaves the Kingdom's capital to take his post at the remote border Fortress of Bastiano, where soldiers and officers have held watch for decades in anticipation of an attack from the mysterious Tartars, the desert people on the other side of the border. Bastiano is a dead place and unsuitable for anyone wanting to make a name for himself in the army since there's little evidence there will ever be a war there. But some endure and wait patiently for the day their patience will be rewarded and war comes and they can achieve glory.
Poor Drogo is caught in this oppressive game of patience, constantly torn between the idea of leaving, the shame of leaving (or deserting, as he feels it), or staying and waiting for the Tartars. As the years and decades pass, the movie shows us what men will sacrifice for a moment to validate their absurd existence, how they'll waste their entire lives waiting for something that may never come.
In this atmosphere friends leave, others die. Some grow old and retire, some are promoted. And always life goes on without much change. In a movie where fundamental aspects of human life are explored, it's no wonder that this movie is filled with scenes of intimacy and beauty. It's always heartbreaking when friends bid farewell, and there are many farewell scenes in this movie, some of the best I've seen. It's also sad to see when Tartars are spotted and the soldiers build up hopes, only to have them thwarted again and again.
The cast gathers some of the best European actors of the time: Jacques Perrin plays Drogo; Vittorio Gassman plays the Fortress' Colonel Filimore, an experienced and sensible man who contrasts with Major Mattis (Giuliano Gemma), a fanatic for rules and order. Max Von Sydow gives my favourite performance of the movie as Hortiz, a seasoned officer who embodies the hope that one's life dedicated to the Fortress will be validated by a Tartar attack. Smaller roles are filled in by amazing actors like Jean-Louis Trintignant, Francisco Rabal, Fernando Rey, Philippe Noirte and Helmut Griem.
From a visual point of view the movie is gorgeous. I read that Zurlini used Giorgio de Chirico's paintings to capture the feel of silence and stillness of the movie, and it shows. As the screen fills with vast landscapes and decrepit buildings, one can see de Chirico's mysterious piazzas and desolate buildings. Complemented by one of Morricone's best scores, Il Deserto dei Tartari stands as a great cinematic achievement.
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