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    El Alamein

    Forgotten forces

    Italians aren't usually thought of as war heroes, but that's what the divisions in the Egyptian desert in WWII became after being abandoned by central command, their story reconstructed from diaries and oral accounts in "El Alamein."


    El Alamein in the western Egyptian desert was the site of the first great battle of World War II between the German forces and the English. There were Italian troops there as well, but their part has been largely forgotten.

    Directed by: Enzo Monteleone.
    Cast: Paolo Briguglia, Silvio Orlando, Giuseppe Cederna, Pietro Maggi˜, Pierfrancesco Favino, Luciano Scarpa, Emilio Solfrizzi, Thomas Trabacchi.
    Cinematography: Daniele Nannuzzi.
    In Italian with English subtitles.

    Related links: Official site
    Walter Reade Theater Lincoln Center, 65th St. between Broadway and Amsterdam (212) 875-5600 Fri., May 30, 2003, 6:30 p.m. Sat., May 31, 2003, 1:30 p.m.

    Open Roads: New Italian Cinema 2003
  • Overview
  • El Alamein

    Past years
  • Open Roads: New Italian Cinema (2002)

  • Official site
  • Until now, that is, with Enzo Monteleone's stunning account of one the "abandoned" Pavia division, a composite from the participants' diaries and oral accounts. As the English advanced, the Italian forces had the thankless task of fortifying the southern (desert) flanks. So thankless that supplies arrived only rarely and reinforcements almost never.

    When Serra (Paolo Briguglia) appears, it's like a mirage. He's broken off his university studies to volunteer for the African front, a fact that commanding officer Fiore (Emilio Solfrizzi) suggests he hide. There's little time to settle in, because English aircraft regularly strafe their makeshift bunkers in a "wadi" dry river gully. On the way to his new post an attack occurs. His buddy a few feet away dies instantly while he is unscathed. It's his first "miracle," as his new trenchmates call it. Two more and it's your turn.

    Over the next almost two hours, hits and near misses decimate the group and heap cynicism onto bitterness. Yet their solidarity is palpable, at times verging on the sensual in Daniele Nannuzzi's superb cinematography. (Acting is top notch throughout — an antidote to the growing tendency to use non-professionals.) These men represent a clear mixture of backgrounds and separate regions of Italy, but rivalry that would doom their closeness back home is entirely absent. The closing scene has taciturn Sergeant Rizzo (Pierfrancesco Favino) shooing Serra off to almost certain relief while choosing to wait with expiring Lieutenant Fiore for a rescue that may never come.

    His buddy a few feet away dies instantly while he is unscathed. It's his first "miracle," as his new trenchmates call it. Two more and it's your turn.  

    Nothing seems extraneous to the story. Even the few comic/ironic moments are integral to the sequence. A two-truck convoy shows up one day, clearly lost. The load is nothing short of explosive: boot polish to spruce up the planned victory parade in Alexandria and the Duce's favorite horse to lead it. The horse would have represented the first meat the men had had in weeks, but Fiore's general decency grants it an impromptu pardon. On a mission, Rizzo and Serra plus two others make a long detour to the sea, strip to their birthday suits and hop in for a long overdue bath.

    There's also action galore. Perhaps because this isn't a high-tech effort, shelling and tank attacks are so realistic they are frightening. (Compare that to the staged efforts in Iraq that filled our TV screens.) If the ferocity is amazing, so is the futility of the final retreat.

    A great war film like this one also doubles as a great anti-war statement. (Most of the film was shot in Morocco, so we'll have to take Monteleone's word that we're seeing something close to the actual site.) The scenes end at the memorial to the fallen with name after name on white Italian marble plaques, many bearing "unknown."

    Not surprisingly, this film was vilified by right-wing figures in Italy, particularly the inheritors of the ex-fascist party. They have a point. The entire wartime leadership and Italy's alliance with Germany stands accused. The horse incident (everything depicted is true) merely typifies the indifference shown toward the Italian troops in this first major battle of WWII. Not for nothing does director Monteleone concentrate on the individual stories, which are an amalgam of first-hand accounts. These are the true heroes that need to be remembered-even if it means rewriting history.

    JUNE 3, 2003

    Reader comments on El Alamein:

  • not really a war movie   from Kenshiro, Jun 19, 2003
  • Re: not really a war movie   from Riccardo, Aug 24, 2003
  • Re: not really a war movie   from Marco, Oct 21, 2003
  • re: not really a war movie   from diego, Oct 27, 2003
  • EL ALAMEIN IN ENGLISH   from pvolini><br> E-mai, Nov 16, 2003
  • Re: EL ALAMEIN IN ENGLISH   from ostheer, Dec 17, 2003
  • Re: EL ALAMEIN IN ENGLISH   from hal, Jan 1, 2004
  • First battle   from Balazs, Nov 26, 2003
  • Italian army movies   from Francesco, Mar 3, 2004
  • great movie, great review   from David Gress, Nov 26, 2004
  • writing screenplays   from Tim, Dec 7, 2004
  • Re: writing screenplays   from salvatore vitale, Jan 28, 2007
  • Re: writing screenplays   from salvatore vitale, Jan 28, 2007
  • Re: writing screenplays   from gino, Feb 24, 2007
  • Re: writing screenplays   from Allen Joslyn, Aug 26, 2007
  • Great Movie   from Randall, Apr 18, 2006
  • El Alamein   from charles, Aug 4, 2008
  • Battle of El Alamein   from Anthony Gumbrell, Apr 5, 2011

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