The Desert Of The Tartars (Il Deserto Dei Tartari) is a film that has been described as a cross between Beau Geste and Waiting For Godot, and into that mix I would toss some of the films of Hiroshi Teshigahara, especially Woman In The Dunes, as well as the troop interactions seen in the 1960s American television sitcom F Troop, even though The Desert Of The Tartars is not a comedy. This is because the slow moving and contemplative first half of the film follows the setting up of the main military officer characters between each other, and with their men, while the second half of the film speeds up the pace of the diegetic time, and focuses more on the reactions of the officers to the world outside their fortress, rather than within it. The reason for these comparisons are that, unlike three of those four mentioned influences, this 140 minute long, color, 1976 film, by Italian director, Valerio Zurlini, with a screenplay by André G. Brunelin, based on a novel by Dino Buzzati, called The Tartar Steppe, is a film almost hermetically sealed from laughter. Having stated that, it’s not a film that is overly somber. It is the sort of film, like those in the canons of Bela Tarr, Theo Angelopolous, and John Cassavetes, that is simply nonpareil, in the sense that there really is no other film like it, for good or ill. Overwhelmingly, I’d claim that the film’s difference is overwhelmingly for the positive, but there are a few negatives that keep the film in the near-great category, rather than that of the unequivocally great.
The film opens in 1907, we are told, with the arrival of a young lieutenant named Drogo (Jacques Perrin) on his first assignment at the border outpost, Bastiano (filmed at the Citadel at Arg-e Bam, Iran), between two unnamed European kingdoms. His country is unnamed, save for being called an empire, while on the other side of the border lies the North Kingdom and the desert of the Tartars. It can be presumed that the empire Drogo serves was modeled after the Austro-Hungarian Empire, for the officers at the fort come from clearly different ethnic and national groups, both in complexion and surnames. There is the General (Philippe Noiret), who seems indifferent to the ennui of the fort’s occupants; the doctor (Jean-Louis Trintignant), who is a misanthrope; Captain (then Major and Colonel) Hortiz (Max von Sydow); Lieutenant Nathanson (Fernando Rey), a cripple; Lieutenant Filimore (Vittorio Gassman); Lieutenant Tronk (Francisco Rabal); Lieutenant Amerling (Laurent Terzieff); and Lieutenant (then Captain and Major) Simeon (Helmut Griem). The bulk of the film is about the lives of these men, who await a possible military strike by soldiers of either the North Kingdom, or the legendary Tartars, whom we are told roamed this desert centuries earlier.
Over the course of the film we see the routines that the fort’s occupants have fallen in to, and the bizarre desperation they have for an enemy attack. Drogo longs to be sent to another assignment, as he soon tires of the endless routine of the fort, and gets a medical excuse to be transferred, but delays in using it for several years, so that when he finally does apply for a transfer the medical excuse is no longer valid. But, by then he changes his mind, and finds him aping the obsessions of a number of the other officers, who have risen through the ranks to, in turn, head the fort. The one character who seems to be the film’s villain, or at least anti-hero, is Major Mattis (Giuliano Gemma), for his sucking up to authority and absurd adherence to arcane rules, which end up getting a private unnecessarily killed, thus leading to one of the film’s best scenes, wherein Mattis physically assails the dead private’s troop members, who jointly refuse to obey orders. Later, when the fort’s import in the empire’s military hierarchy is downgraded, fewer men are needed, so many are transferred. All along, through the swiftly passing years, signs of enemy troops slowly massing for an attack are seen but dismissed by assorted officers until, at the film’s end, when Drogo is a Captain, too ill to fight, and the fort has its third commander during his tenure, they seem ready to advance and attack with massive hordes, but we are never quite sure whether this is objective reality or the wish fulfillment of the ill Drogo.
The DVD, put out by No Shame, on rental from Netflix, for the price to own an out of print copy is regrettably well over $70, is from a mostly pristine print of the film, save for a few scenes, 25-30 minutes into the film, where some notable streaks and damage appear against the desert scenery. The audio track is likewise well preserved, and the scoring, by the magnificent Ennio Morricone, is, per usual, perfect for the images depicted. Morricone never leads an audience, nor intrudes. The music only enhances the filmic experience. Unfortunately, there is no commentary track, but there is a stills gallery of photographs from the film, and there are three interviews, two with actor Giuliano Gemma, and one with cinematographer Luciano Tovoli, who also provides a minute long Introduction to the film, and whose camera work is awesome- from framing, to dolly shots and more. Zurlini claimed to have been inspired by Giorgio de Chirico’s paintings, but the depth of field, and the clarity of the desert images (especially master shots of the fort, are of such depth and breadth that one almost feels one is watching a science fiction film of life on another planet. The subtitles on the are solid white font, and sometimes are hard to read in desert scenes, and there is, unfortunately, no English language dubbed option for the film, although the film, with actors from different countries, is clearly filled with looped dialogue.
The film is a masculine film, with only one brief, minor female character’s appearance at the film’s introduction, yet it is absent testosterone, machismo, violence, war scenes, excessive death and cruelty, because it is not an action film- which is unfortunately the default idea of what a ‘masculine’ film is, but a film that is a study of human character and characters, and an allegory on life, yet even more profound, in its way and length, than Waiting For Godot is, for, as Woody Allen once claimed, Comedy is for children, Drama is sitting at the grown ups’ table. The only things that keep me from declaring this an inarguably great film are 1) the length of the film, which could have lost a good 20 minutes with no consequence, and 2) that loss could have been easily achieved with the trimming of some of the secondary officer characters, whose lives are never explored as deeply as those of Drogo, Mattis, Hortiz, Simeon and the General. About the only thing in the film that I found offputting was a scene where several of the officers go on a wild boar hunt and kill one with a spear and, unless special effects were better than I imagine, back then, they actually kill the poor animal onscreen, and one can hear its agonal squeals and leg twitches as it really dies. Otherwise, this Kafkan drama is an excellent example of top notch screenwriting, acting, scoring, and cinematography, and director Zurlini establishes his bona fides as a director capable of being mentioned in the same breath as other Italian greats of cinema, such as Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Luchino Visconti, Roberto Rossellini, Sergio Leone, and Vittorio De Sica.
In a review of the film, an online critic named Jeff Kuykendall wrote:
If the film were a bit more strange, a bit more shocking, it may have been better remembered, these three decades later. As it is, The Desert of the Tartars is an interesting, literary, and occasionally fascinating film; it has a peerless, professional sheen. Perhaps a little smudge here and there could have made it a masterpiece. Sometimes a director needs to get his hands dirty.
But that’s not really the issue with this film because, while stylized, it is a relentlessly realistic film, not an Absurdist film- despite the frequent mentions of Beckett in regards to it. Were it stranger it would be more easily written off as a cinephile’s fetish, rather than a burr under the complacent eye of your typical Hollywood moviegoer’s gaze. It is, essentially, a film about the fact of life and the myths men make to ease their toleration of it, not the hows, whys, and wherefores of that process. The best example of this comes in the form of von Sydow’s Hortiz who, after finally commanding the garrison, is relieved of duty, then, having not lived to see the hoped for invasion, with which he can etch his name in glory, heads out to the desert and commits suicide. It is never really explained, since he seems to have the trappings of success and respect; but then again this exactly why, despite many claims to the contrary, The Desert Of The Tartars is a realistic film, in its depiction, and why its strikes so deeply at viewers who appreciate it, and do not. Regardless of viewer reactions, and opinions of it, it is not a film easily forgotten, and few films today- Hollywood, independent, or foreign, can make that claim.