Monday, February 13, 2012

MM Movie Review: El Alamein - La linea del fuoco

“El Alamein - La Linea del Fuoco” (‘the line of fire’) is a very well done and moving film that is often mislabeled. In fact, even the title is a bit misleading. It is not about the famous World War II battle of El Alamein at all, in fact it has very little to do with the actual battle. It is, in the strictest sense, a “war movie” but if you are looking for lots of action, close combat battle scenes and heavy gunfire you will be sorely disappointed. I would be surprised if there was even five minutes of actual fighting on screen in the entire movie. However, with all due apologies to the action junkies, that should not discourage you from seeing this movie. If it has anything to do with the battle of El Alamein it is mostly in the aftermath of the battle, which was a British victory and a disaster for the Axis forces and the Italian army in particular. What is truly great about this movie is that it tells a story few know anything about, it shows the real life of an Italian army unit in North Africa which was far from glamorous or exciting and it shows the stoic courage of Italian soldiers put in an impossible position through no fault of their own. It is a moving and realistic look at an aspect of World War II few think about.

The central character is Private Serra, a fresh-faced university volunteer from Sicily who arrives in Egypt pumped full of promises from Mussolini that soon Italian troops will be marching into Alexandria and break the back of the British Empire. He is assigned to the Pavia Division at the extreme southern end of the front. His unit is literally the last in line with nothing below them but the impassable Qattara Depression. As soon as he arrives he sees first-hand the dangers of his new environment as the corporal guiding him to his squad is blasted to nothing by an incoming British artillery shell (a severed ear being all that remains of the man). He is taken in and shown the ropes by his sergeant, Rizzo, (an excellent performance by Pierfrancesco Favino) a veteran soldier from a peasant background with little education but a great deal of real-life experience at war. He had once been a POW of the British and that experience made him determined never to be taken alive again. Serra meets and quickly befriends the other men of his squad, the closest being Private Spagna, Corporal De Vita who, along with Serra and Sergeant Rizzo, form a close circle of friends. Lt. Fiore is their officer, a good man but an exhausted one who is a father-figure in the best sense to his soldiers.

I have noticed that in similar American war movies there are always fights inside every unit, the bullies and the bullied and it was nice to see one where this never really happened (though Serra is warned at the outset to remove his “University Volunteer” patch for fear this will upset his comrades). All share the same dangers and privations and they all pretty much stick together and look out for one another, which was a refreshing change. The first part of the movie shows Serra getting used to life at the front, learning about the dangers of enemy shelling, the environment, mines and dysentery. As he relates in letters home, it is not what he expected with long stretches of inactive boredom punctuated by occasional shelling by an enemy none can see. When the unit comes under attack by a British sniper, shooting medics as well as infantry, enraging the Italians, they call for their expert mortar operator to take out the sniper. This stood out to me as being a good and historically accurate scene. Because the Italian army was often lacking in proper weapons and equipment their mortar teams became renowned for their expertise, an expertise born out of necessity as they often had to do the job better suited to weapons the Italian forces lacked.

Serra is also told about the “three miracles” every soldier gets only to learn that he already used up two within days of his arrival. The first was when the corporal guiding him was “turned to sand” yet Serra wasn’t touched. The second was when he stepped on a mine only to discover it was an anti-tank mine and he wasn’t heavy enough to set it off. So he had only one miracle left, yet, after questioning his comrades, he learned that they all used up all three of their miracles months, if not years, before. However, their biggest problem is a lack of almost everything; food, water, ammunition, new uniforms and replacements for their losses. When a supply convoy is lost they almost eat Mussolini’s horse but the lieutenant cannot bring himself to kill the animal. Again, the scene is illustrative of the wider war. The trucks were carrying shoe polish and the horse Mussolini would ride triumphantly into Alexandria. While the soldiers at the front had next to nothing and felt forgotten, their dictator was using up supply trucks and fuel to prepare for a victory parade that would never happen. Overcome by privation, Sergeant Rizzo and his squad break orders while on a mission to pick up supplies and drive to the coast for a few forbidden minutes of swimming and pretending there is no war.

Not long after returning, Serra discovers a camel which he shoots for his comrades to feast on. This leads to the discovery that certain areas have been de-mined which makes the men think the British are planning an attack. Later, Lt. Fiore informs Sergeant Rizzo that a scouting party of bersaglieri had gone missing in the Qattara Depression and that he has to take a man to go look for them and see if the British might be trying to pass through the impassable sea of sand. Rizzo chooses Serra to go with him since he is new and he doesn’t want to risk the lives of other men who have served so much longer on what could be a dangerous assignment. After an epic trek through the barren wasteland they find the bersaglieri all dead and bury them and hurry back to camp as they hear artillery fire in the distance. Little did they know, they might have saved their lives by being away as the missed the main British attack of the second battle of El Alamein. They return to their pit to find everything in shambles, Corporal De Vita suffering from shell shock and Spagna shaken but unhurt.

The group then learns that they are pulling back to another defensive line where they deal with another British attack and then are told the army is retreating again. This begins the primary “story” to this movie which is the real-life experience of the Italian X Army Corps which was abandoned during the Axis retreat after the battle of El Alamein. They have no transportation, no relief for their wounded men and as they trudge through the desert soon have nothing at all. Attrition wears them down and their numbers dwindle as they cross a seemingly infinite expanse of desert. This is historically accurate as the X Corp, including the Pavia Division, was abandoned during the retreat, most being captured by the British or dropping dead of their wounds or exhaustion. It is one of the most terrible but often overlooked disasters of World War II.

The famous German Field Marshal Rommel had been absent during the British attack at El Alamein and when he returned and found things in a mess he ordered an immediate retreat, not just out of Egypt, but ultimately all the way back to Tunisia. This greatly upset the Italians (many of whom had disapproved of the offensive in the first place as being too reckless and foolhardy) for a number of reasons. Among these was the fact that, whereas the German Africa Corps was highly motorized, the Italian army was severely lacking in transportation and, as was the case with the X Corps, many men would have to be left behind. Also, the Italians wished to at least attempt to defend Libya, which was their land, but which the Germans had no interest in. These brutal historical facts are illustrated in the film in a couple of scenes; one in which a column of haughty Germans speed past the Italians in trucks, cars and half-tracks, refusing to help and shouting insults at them. Later an Italian truck comes by but, while somewhat more sympathetic, is already overloaded with men and has no room for any others.

So, the remnants of the X Corps struggle on. Lt. Fiore leads the way, soon he, Sgt. Rizzo and Pvt. Serra are all that remains of his command. Each time they reach what would have been their destination they find out that the army had already retreated to another point hundreds of kilometers away. Passing vehicles promise to send a truck back for them but none ever arrive. Although our focus is on this little band, it is made clear that there are many more just like them, thousands of men who have been left to their fate, left to the mercy of the desert of their British enemies. It was a shameful page in the history of the German Africa Corps which stands out all the more because, unlike other fronts in the war, the German army in Africa was usually noted for behaving in a humane and professional manner. In the film, almost by chance, Fiore, Rizzo and Serra avoid being captured with the rest of the Italian forces they were traveling with while camping for the night at a small Muslim shrine. Lt. Fiore, badly wounded, becomes weaker and closer to death when they finally discover an abandoned motorcycle and get it working.

At the very beginning of the film, Serra was taken to the front by a Bersaglieri soldier on a motorcycle. It is when he first sees North Africa, and finds it beautiful. In a scene meant to mirror the opening, Fiore says he cannot make it and the loyal Sergeant Rizzo will not leave him behind. So, Serra is sent alone to take the motorcycle in the hope that he can escape to safety and perhaps send back a rescue for the two others. From what we have seen so far though, it does not look like Lt. Fiore will live very long. Serra seems to sense this as well as tears stream down his face as he races away on the precious motorcycle, leaving as he came, but full of sorrow where he had arrived with so much optimism. With no more resolution than that we fade to black as text appears on the screen relating the historical facts and the stunning statistics of the Pavia Division and the X Italian Army Corps which was abandoned and totally lost in the aftermath of El Alamein.

The ending some may have a problem with. Nothing is really resolved, we don’t know for sure what happens. Do Fiore and Rizzo survive? Are they rescued? Does Serra even manage to get to the Italo-German lines? We don’t know and, as the closing shots show the marble blocks for the remains of all those marked “unknown” perhaps this was to make an intentional point. It does drive home the realism of the whole piece, which is a tragedy, that in real life, you don’t always get the happy ending, sometimes you don’t get an ending at all. In that sense, it is a fitting way to end the film but it certainly is not satisfying in the typical way most are used to. The acting in the movie is top-notch all around. Pierfrancesco Favino as Sgt. Rizzo particularly stood out, which is not surprising given his record as an award-winning actor.

This movie won three Italian Academy Awards and all due credit should go to Enzo Monteleone for making a movie that feels like an epic on a very restricted budget. Using night battles, swirling sand and strategic placement of extras, he is able to convey the feeling that a much larger war is raging all the time in the background even without an army of extras. Paolo Briguglia, who played Pvt. Serra, won a Golden Globe for best actor debut with this movie and I have to give credit to someone new to me, Emilio Solfrizzi who played Lt. Fiori. He gave a very powerful dramatic performance which impressed me all the more when I found out afterward that the man is a comedian. All I can say is that he definitely has what they call in the acting world “range” and that is impressive. The attention to detail throughout the film seemed pretty good to me. I’m no expert to quibble on such things but I did notice they were wearing the correct collar patches for soldiers of the Pavia Division.

This movie will not be to everyone’s taste. However, it is very well done and tells an important story that few have ever heard. That is probably what I liked best about it was simply the subject matter. I like that this story was told and told so well. In truth, the Italian commander in North Africa, Marshal of Italy Bastico, was against the invasion of Egypt, even German Air Marshal Kesselring was against it but Rommel, perhaps over-confident from his string of victories, pushed ahead. Marshal Bastico predicted that they would stretch their supply lines to the breaking point and these would already be over-stressed since the conquest of Malta was postponed in favor of the Egyptian campaign. Everything came out as he predicted. The British were victorious and the Italians were left high and dry, even after putting up truly heroic resistance. The Folgore Division was particularly cited (and this was mentioned in the film) for stopping a major British attack with little more than their bare hands. This movie tells an important story, a story of brave Italian soldiers who did all that could be expected, who were brave, determined and hard fighters but who were sadly abandoned. Their courage and sacrifice deserves to be remembered.

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