Monday, April 14, 2014

Desert of the Tartars - the final film I viewed at the 2014 HKIFF (film review)

The Hwaseong Fortress in Suwon, South Korea, is far from 
the desert but still is one of the closest things to the Bam Citadel --
which featured in Desert of the Tartars -- that I've got photos of!

Desert of the Tartars (Italy-France-West Germany, 1976)
- From the Restored Classics program
- Valerio Zurlini, director
- Starring: Jacques Perrin, Helmut Griem, Vittoria Gassman, Max von Syndow, Guiliano Gemma, Francisco Rabal, Laurent Terzieff

When Hong Kong film fans think of desert epics, chances are that their minds will turn to Wong Kar Wai's Ashes of Time while Western cinema fans will invariably get to thinking of David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia. And although I wouldn't go so far as to state that Valerio Zurlini's Desert of the Tartars is as much of a cinematic masterpiece as those two films, it's true enough that images from it now will come to mind when I think of the desert post my having been treated to a Hong Kong International Film Festival screening of the 1976 work on the Hong Kong Cultural Centre's super big screen. 

Desert of the Tartars begins in a recognizably European locale but, along with its protagonist, Lieutenant Drogo (Jacques Perrin, probably better known these days as the director of nature documentaries Winged Migration and Oceans), spends the bulk of its running time in a remote -- and thoroughly exotic looking -- desert fortress at the edge of a far-flung empire (with a double headed eagle on its flag) whose eastern border has been deemed to require guarding by soldiers who need to be constantly vigilant against a Tartar threat.  

Adapted from Italian author Dino Buzzati's The Tartar Steppe and helmed by an Italian director, this offering nonetheless is less a recognizably Italian film than an Italian-French-West German co-production with an international cast who play characters with surnames that sound more English (Nathanson), Spanish (Hortiz), French (Simeon) and German (von Amerling) than Italian. 

In addition, while the Internet Movie Database lists its language as Italian, the restored version that I saw (and heard) had its characters speaking in French.  Even more amazingly, the film turns out to have been largely shot at the incredible looking Iranian citadel of Bam which, together with the city of the same name, was sadly devastated by a major earthquake in 2003.

Although Desert of the Tartars focuses on military men, it actually features zero combat scenes.  Instead, the soldiers are seen patrolling, drilling, even dining and hunting game but, above all, forever waiting for -- and keeping guard against -- opponents that often seem more mythical -- and to exist in minds that are all too capable of being threatened by insanity, depression and other malaises -- than real.

There's a case to be made for not much happening in the film.  Yet, rather than be boring, things not happening for long periods in this 140 minute length offering actually heightens tensions and emphasizes how much people -- especially those who have to work and live in close quarters with others for long periods of time -- have to psychologically battle within themselves and also deal with in others.

Something that really stood out because I watched this work just a few hours after having watched the lust-filled Blind Massage was how sex-less are the lives of the characters in Desert of the Tartars.  (While this film has at least one more female character than Lawrence of Arabia, its world is also incredibly male and not very (outwardly) homosexual either.)  At the same time though, it also is full of people who are destroyed -- psychologically and even physically -- by their frustrations eating at them from within.

Even while the visuals enthrall, this production also happens to be psychologically and philosophically disturbing.  In the crumbling surroundings of the citadel (called the Bastiani Fortress in the film), people wreck their lives -- with the worst thing being that their efforts and sacrifices feel like such an unnecessary waste.  

At the risk of reading too much into things, Lieutanant Drogo's tale looks to me to serve as a particularly sad object lesson.  If only he had obeyed his initial instincts (to get away from the fortress at the first opportunity).  Instead, through a combination of such as inertia, developed obsession, caring too much about what his peers and nominal "superiors" thought, and feeling that his career was going somewhere as a result of getting small promotion upon promotion, he ended up going nowhere in life while thinking he was going somewhere professionally.  

My rating for this film: 8.0


Samson said...

Thank you for the excellent coverage of the 2014 HKIFF. I've enjoyed reading your reviews tremendously. See you next year!

YTSL said...

Hi Samson --

"See you next year"? You mean you won't visit again until then??? Hope not!!!

And BTW, I'm surprised how lengthy my reviews this year turned out to be -- especially compared to last year. Don't know what got into me... it must have been the encouragement I got from seeing positive comments by the likes of you! ;)

Brian Naas said...

Just caught up on your film reviews. Thanks for doing so. You must be exhausted and your eyeballs in need of a rest. If I had to pick a film that I really would love to see of the ones you reviewed, it would of course be New York Chinatown!

YTSL said...

Hi Brian --

Believe it or not, I actually watched some other non-HKIFF movies when the HKIFF was on -- all in all, I watched 11 movies the week beginning on March 24th, and 8 movies the week starting on March 31st!

But the week after that, I didn't watch a single movie... (was back in Penang, BTW). So am back to viewing movies again this week -- 3 already, and it's only a few minutes into Thursday as I write this! ;O

Bill said...

Hi Yvonne,

You certainly have produced a profusion of reviews from the HKIFF. I hope some of your proficiency rubs off on those of us out here in cyberspace who frequently experience writer's block. (If you should experience a drought of words, I'm sure Stress or Muse Ponyo would be there for you).

Great film news: A print of the 1927 silent film, Cave of the Silken Web, long thought lost, was found in Oslo and returned to China. (I have the 1967 Shaw Brothers version which is entertaining).

Finally...Thoughts and prayers for those who lost their lives on the Sewol Ferry, which was filled with vacationers headed to Jeju Island.


YTSL said...

Hi Bill --

Yes, Muse Ponyo helps me to write. That's why she's so named -- and yes, I did use to bring her to work (and still would if the need arises).

Also, thanks for the mention of both the good film news and the sad Korean news. Re the latter: it's such a shock... :S

sarah bailey knight said...

Hi ytsl,

I have so enjoyed your recent film reviews. Like Brian I too, if I had to choose one film, would pick New York Chinatown.

And a big hug for Muse Ponyo and Puppet Ponyo too....don't want her to feel left out.

YTSL said...

Hi sarah sbk --

I definitely understand you and Brian's choice of film that you most would like to see -- and I think you two would enjoy "New York Chinatown". Also think you'll like "Late Autumn" -- and it should be much easier to get a chance to check out!

And awwww re the big hug from you for Muse Ponyo and Puppet Ponyo. All my Ponyos are worth a hug in my opinion. ;)