Egyptian front, October 1942. After exhausting battles, the front-line has been deployed at El Alamein, not far from Alexandria. The south sector is occupied by the Pavia division, which has been fighting a wearying and drawn out war of positions, against an invisible enemy, which makes its presence felt only through frequent aerial bombings. Lack of food and water, dysentery, illness, and extremely hot weather are other much more pressing enemies. Young Serra, a university student volunteer drawn to Africa by the regime propaganda, arrives at the Italian post. He soon realizes that the situation is completely different to what he was told it was: the troop morale is very low, and their soldiers’ enthusiasm has vanished. In addition, some tragicomic events are taking place, like the mistaken arrival of the horse that Mussolini was due to ride at the parade after the conquest of Alexandria.
During Serra’s reconnaissance mission in the Qattara Depression with Sgt. Rizzo, the Pavia position is bombed and almost destroyed. It’s the beginning of the famous battle of El Alamein, which will last ten days and will be remembered as one of the bloodiest carnages of the Second World War. The Pavia division receives the order to join the other units of the Italian Expedition Corps. However, after a night of attacks from the English, the only thing left to do is to retreat to a destination which changes from hour to hour depending on the enemy’s advance. The following night, the remnants of the Pavia division (a group of soldiers in disarray, some of them wounded, and with neither weapons nor food) are captured by the English in a Muslim cemetery. Serra, Rizzo and Lt. Fiore narrowly escape because they are superstitious and prefer to sleep far from the graves. The three soldiers keep on walking in the desert until they see an abandoned lorry and a motorbike. Rizzo chooses to stay there to look after the lieutenant, while Serra rides the motorbike towards the Italian outposts, with the promise of an impossible return.
There were many different ways to tell the story of the battle of El Alamein. One was to place the emphasis on the bravery of the Italian soldiers who, according to English opinion, sacrificed their lives to defend the desert front. Another one was to choose a “political” point of view (so to speak), and represent El Alamein as a symbol of the downfall of an obtuse and liberticidal regime. Finally, another way was to tell the story from the perspective of the people in authority: Rommel on one side, Montgomery on the other, and the Italian commanders in the middle. Monteleone instead chooses a more intimate approach, and therefore he decides to narrate the story of a group of simple men facing the real war. The war that is fought on the battlefields and not in the history books. The real war, and not the war that is decided in the control rooms.
The film is firmly grounded in a thorough documentary knowledge, which the director obtained both from the literature on the subject and from interviews with many war veterans. In this way he could release a film, which (contrary to some pompous reviews) is not lacking historical perspective. In fact all the events depicted, even the smallest details, are true. Rather, this is an anti-rhetoric film, as the choice of cast demonstrates. In fact the actors were selected not for their celebrity but rather for their resemblance to ordinary people and for their ability to portray everyday Italians who found themselves trapped in a situation they could only escape by appealing to their own dignity. Director Monteleone succeeds in the task of narrating the “awful death” which is at the base of every war by keeping to the restricted path between minimalist banalities and the pomposity of militant cinema. He recovers the national tradition of the “average” Italian film and accomplishes the miracle both of moving the audiences to tears and, at the same time, of making them think.
Once you leave the theatre you are convinced that, at last, you have witnessed an Italian film, which even runs the risk of being a masterpiece.
Translation by Michele Curatolo (edited by Ester Tossi)