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The Grandest—and Most Existential—of Colonialist Epics

Futile-destiny despair: Gassman and Noiret
photo: No Shame Films
Futile-destiny despair: Gassman and Noiret

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The Desert of the Tartars
No Shame
A fascinating whatsit never released in the United States, Valerio Zurlini's 1976 adaptation of the revered 1938 Dino Buzzati novel by the same name is a massive post-Lean epic—a colonialist drama, shot in widescreen on location, and with an international cast including Jean-Louis Trintignant, Max von Sydow, Fernando Rey, Philippe Noiret, and Vittorio Gassman—that's actually about the absence of event and consequence. It may be the grandest and most lavish existentialist parable ever made. A baby-faced soldier (Jacques Perrin) is assigned to the outskirts of an unspecified empire—specifically, to a massive, ancient fortress beyond which lies only the endless desert and "the Tartars," the Orwellian enemy that never appears, but must be prepared for at all times. Time passes in an hourglass; the Old World officers living rather poshly inside are either going slowly insane or praying for reassignment. Employing all of the accoutrements of colonialism as metaphors for futile- destiny despair and yet visually resembling an expensive international co-production in which something big always seems to be on the verge of happening, Zurlini's movie also boasts a secret weapon like none other: the Bam Citadel. Shot entirely within the 2,000-year-old Persian city—decimated forever in the 2003 earthquake—Zurlini's film is fascinating both as a modernist flourish set in a primeval reality, and as a historical record. Extras include a CD of Ennio Morricone's score, three interview docs, trailers, posters, and a dense booklet of production info.
 
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