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."
By DAVID LIPFERT
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.
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.
|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
Fri., May 30, 2003, 6:30 p.m.
Sat., May 31, 2003, 1:30 p.m.|
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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.
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.
|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.|| |
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|
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