Italian movies on WWII are rare, so when I saw El Alamein – The Line of Fire aka El Alamein La linea del fuoco in a DVD shop I had to buy it right away. Thankfully it was well worth buying as I will certainly watch it again. Sure, the year is still young but I think it’s safe to say that this one will be on my Best of 2013 List. I liked it a great deal.
El Alamein is told from the point of view of philosophy student Serra. Serra has volunteered in 1942 after hearing that the Italian troops were in urgent need of reinforcements. Following the point of view of a young, naive and inexperienced private is common in war movies but in this case it works particularly well as Serra is the philosophical, introspective type. Seeing through his eyes gives the movie a lyrical feel that is underlined through a beautiful score.
Serra expects to see action right away but the Pavia Division, located on the southern line in Egypt, is more like an outpost. Boredom, inertia, heat, hunger, thirst and endless days of waiting for an enemy they cannot see but who bombards them frequently is the daily fare. This allows the men, to get to know each other, to experience the desert fully; its harsh beauty and the dangers it brings.
When they go on reconnaissance they have to fear for their lives as the terrain around the outpost is covered in mines and walking about is dangerous.
The situation is also very absurd. What are they doing there? What are they guarding? Nothing much is happening. I felt reminded of Dino Buzzati’s excellent novel The Tartar Steppe (Il deserto dei tartari).
When the British finally attack, the Italians do not stand a chance. There are twice as many British troops, they are better equipped, better fed, their morale is much higher. The Italians are demoralized for many reasons. The Germans don’t take their ally seriously, they let them do the dirty work. As it was so often the case, the high command of the Italain’s proves to be clueless. In one scene it is shown that while there is no food or water, truckloads of shoe creme are sent through the desert for a parade.
After the attack during which almost the whole of the Pavia and other Divisions died, the troops flee in confusion, not knowing where to go and what will happen next. Serra, Sgt Rizzo and Lt Fiori end up on their own and try to get through the desert with hardly any food or water.
While the first half of this movie is very quiet and takes a lot of time to give us a feel for the situation the Italians faced and to introduce the characters, the second half is action driven.
The funny thing is that while watching this, you soon forget that the Italians were fighting on the wrong side. The characters are so likable and they seem such helpless victims of their government that you can only feel pity.
I liked the many intimate moments, the discussions between the soldiers, the mood, the atmosphere. At times the movie felt like a combination of All Quite on the Western Front and Ice Cold in Alex.
I highly recommend this wonderful movie to anyone interested in war movies and WWII.
I couldn’t find a trailer, let alone with English subtitles, but here’s the full movie – in Italian.
Great review. Really makes me want to watch it. Surprisingly, it is available from Netflix! It would certainly be the first movie I have seen about the WWII Italian army. It sounds a little like the Israeli movie Beaufort. What do you think?
No, very different from Beaufort. Beaufort was a bit artificial, this is very true to life, I looking forward to what you’ll think of it.
This is a great movie. I was actually made to watch this one in an Italian history class.
I thought it was a pleasant surprise. I find it good to include movies like that as a history lesson.
Thanks for the nice review. It’s an interesting movie.
I enjoyed the “phoney war” atmosphere very much, including some clever touches like the soldiers using superstition to make “sense” out of death with the “three miracles” theory. However, the retreat is very low-key; in comparison, one might want to watch Ichikawa’s Nobi (Fires on the Plain) for a truly moving account of how desperate the situation of defeated, abandoned soldiers can be.
Overall, I found the film to be too gentle: at first, the characters are endearing, but they play “nice guys” until the end, actually there are only nice guys. I don’t deny such a situation can occur, even in dire circumstances, but frankly it would be an exception. The colonial history of Italy is absent (as if the Italian armed forces hadn’t occupied Libya for decades), as well as the mark of fascism (surely, the shepherd could have avoided the turmoil, but the university student couldn’t).
My guess is the director deliberately avoided psychological and political conflicts – everything historical – in order to pay tribute to these men through a high degree of abstraction. Problem is, for me at last, it’s far too abstract to ring true. But of course, these men certainly deserved the tribute, and for that, as I wrote above, it’s an interesting movie…
Let’s put it like that, it’s relatively patriotic, that’s for sure but I overall liked it, it really felt at times more like a symbolic movie than an actualy war movie, still I liked it exactly because it was so quiet. I think it works well as an anti-war film. The fact that we completely forget that they were fighting on the wrong side shows it’s tendentious. On the other hand I suppose a huge portion of the Italian population would have preferred to not be on the Germans’s side.
I completely agree on the anti-war intent and the symbolic perspective. There’s very little History here.
But in my view it doesn’t depend on people being on the right or wrong side: after all most of them were drafted, and Italian cinema always had a way to deflect this with comedy. It’s just that the story is stripped of its historical context, just as the characters seem devoid of any violent or selfish impulses… from a human psychology viewpoint, that’s quite odd in a situation of war.
Yes, that’s true. It has something of fable. I did still find the characters believable though.