"Desert of the Tartars" re-emerges: What's not to like in a vintage Italian-French-German co-production featuring half the era's great male stars from those countries and beyond? (Photo courtesy Cinecittá Luce S.p.A. via Pacific Film Archive)

'Desert of the Tartars' Saved from Obscurity

Dennis Harvey August 2, 2009

It’s usually easy enough to pinpoint why a particular movie is remembered, but often hard to explain just why another has been forgotten. Certainly Valerio Zurlini’s 1976 The Desert of the Tartars—making an exceedingly rare appearance this Wednesday as part of the Pacific Film Archive’s "Ecco l’uomo: Celebrating Italian Actors" series—would seem an unlikely candidate for such obscurity as it’s languished in for 30-odd years.

After all, what’s not to like (or at least be curious about) in a vintage Italian-French-German co-production featuring half the era’s great male stars from those countries and beyond? As in, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Vittorio Gassman, Philippe Noiret, Max Von Sydow, Francisco Rabal and Fernando Rey, plus several more names pretty hot on the Continent then (Guiliano Gemma, Helmut Griem etc.) even if they don’t ring a bell now. Tartars is a colonialist period war epic of sorts, with striking location shooting in a spot seldom filmed by Westerners since—the ancient city Bam in southeast Iran, whose approximately 2500-year-old citadel fortress was destroyed by an earthquake in 2003. Isn’t this sounding like a gourmet recipe for action, adventure, spectacle and heroism?

But Desert of the Tartars is about as far from those qualities as you can get. Imagine Beau Geste remade by Tarkovsky or Gunga Din rewritten by Camus, all colonialist derring-do evaporated in an existentialist twilight zone. Blessed with an extraordinary, otherworldly setting, Zurlini’s visual approach to adapting Dino Buzzati’s 1940 novel was reportedly influenced by the great Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico, whose "metaphysical period" depicted surreal landscapes disconnected from time and motion.

Lt. Drogo (Jacques Perrin, more recently director of hit 2001 nature documentary Winged Migration) is an apple-cheeked Italian Army officer at the dawn of the 20th century. "By mistake," his first commission lands him at vast fortress Bastiano, a "dead outpost" located between two nameless countries, "facing nothing": Forbidding snowy mountains on one side, endless desert on the other.

He’s introduced to the garrison’s curious ways and curioser fellow officers. Superiors include sad-sack commander Hortiz (Von Sydow); resigned doctor Rovin (Trintignant); elderly Fillmore (Gassman), mute and seizure-prone from old war wounds; gallant, melancholy Nathanson (Rey); and the politely distant General (Noiret). Among Drogo’s peers are hawkish young hardass Mattis (Gemma), stymied by the suffocating inaction of military life here; and Simeon (Greim), a jovial aristocrat who nonetheless cracks under pressure.

The Desert of the Tartars
isn’t just the sort of movie in which "nothing happens." It’s a story in which the grim certainty that (as Drogo finally admits), "Nothing will ever happen" is a slow poison that drives men to madness, suicide or other inglorious ends.

Drogo fast grows desperate to transfer out of this hellhole. Yet the few times he has a real chance, misplaced honor or some inane technicality hold him prisoner. Bastiano is a living death with its own inescapable diseases and delusions. Expiring from the former TB-like illness is nobleman Amerling (Laurent Terzieff), whose terminal illness is elaborately ignored by all even as he routinely coughs up blood. The whole point of this desolate fort’s current militarization is to provide defense against those invading "Tartar" hordes who’ve been awaited so long they’ve become mythical. When they finally do emerge as binocular-spotted pinpoints in the desert expanse, Drogo is perversely ordered to keep knowledge of any such "optical illusions" to himself.

But by then he’s already a goner, succumbing to the same wasting "disease" that is as mystifying, metaphorical yet potent as everything else here.

Desert of the Tartars
got a grousing reception in Italy, where the novel (translated here as The Tartar Steppe) is considered a masterpiece perhaps beyond cinematic reach. It likely bombed elsewhere, and seems to have gone unreleased here until NoShame’s 2006 DVD issue. Surely this failure was a bitter pill to Zurlini—even if he did win both the David di Donatello (Italy’s Oscar) and Italian Film Journalists’ awards as Best Director.

Indeed, he was considered by many one of his generation’s finest film directors—a generation that included Fellini, Antonioni, Bertolucci, Wertmuller, Olmi, Rosi and Ferreri, to name just a few. But the early success of features like 1959’s Violent Summer and 1961’s Girl with a Suitcase (both also available on U.S. DVD) wasn’t repeated by later films of increasing "difficulty" that are now quite difficult to see. Family Diary (1962) is a quietly stunning drama with one of Marcello Mastroianni’s finest performances (which is saying a lot). I’d cross against traffic in a heartbeat to see The Camp Followers (1965), with Godard’s muse Anna Karina in a story of women "conscripted" into forced prostitution for WW2 Italian soldiers; Black Jesus (1968), a fiercely anti-Colonialist tract starring African American Woody Strode as a Congolese rebel leader; and 1972’s The Professor, a gambling-addiction tragedy whose pairing of Alain Delon and Giancarlo Giannini is a cineaste dream (well, mine at least) come true.

Movies like The Desert of the Tartars don’t stand a chance without immediate acclaim. Its critical and commercial failure appears to have been as doom-sealing for Zurlini as the Bastiano assignment is for Lt. Drogo. He was never able to secure financing for another feature. He taught film students in Rome, served on the 1982 Venice Film Festival jury (whose Golden Lion went to Wim Wenders’ empty Chinese box The State of Things) and killed himself in Verona later that same year.

The PFA’s "Celebrating Italian Actors" series continues through August 29.