Judge P.S. Colbert suggests giving peace a chance.
"This line will be our grave or our honor."
If I believed it were possible to prevent future wars by showing the atrocities of wars past, I'd be pushing to make Francesco Rosi's Many Wars Ago required viewing for all.
The year is 1916, and things are going badly for the Northern Italian army, who've just lost Monte Fiori to Austrian troops. Worse, they've been ordered to take back the hill immediately, which means going up against machine gun volley raining down from pillbox nests. Worse still, commanding officer General Leone (Alain Cuny, Les Visiteurs du Soir) seems unable to make tactical decisions that won't become suicide missions for his soldiers, for instance, charging the better-situated enemy in broad daylight, clad in "Farina armors," clunky Gladiator-era protection that probably gave great advantage when confronting broadswords, but up against mechanized artillery spray? Not so much.
Just as destructive is Leone's slavish devotion to the army's severely outdated conduct of war manuals, which demand Draconian measures be taken against any and all infractions, real or imagined. In one instance, execution is ordered against a scout for calling a halt to a patrol run in order to save men from certain death. All too soon, it becomes apparent that the Italians are losing almost as many soldiers to firing squads and other such officer-mandated punishments as they are to the Austrians, who actually beg the Italians to stop charging at one point, so they won't have to kill any more of them. Indeed, the land between trenches has come to resemble a bumper crop of carnage.
Rosi (The Moment Of Truth), however, doesn't spare a second for the gratuitous or the sensational in his battle scenes-additional kudos to cinematographer Pasqualino De Santis (The Automobile) for his stark realism and full-canvas approach. There are no slow-motion, blood-spurting-glory deaths, and if you're looking for hacked limbs to fly from one end of the screen to another, look elsewhere—here you see corpses in various states of decomposition, muddy trenches, and the sheer inevitability that for Italians in this time and place, ignoble death is their only surety. Not surprisingly, this leads to talk of revolt among the soldiers, coming to realize the fatal consequences of simply following orders.
Chief among those affected by General Leone's directives are his subordinate officers, functioning as middle men, and often being the bearers of bad news; cynical and wily Lieutenant Ottolenghi (Gian Maria Volonté, A Bullet for the General), idealistic and inexperienced Lieutenant Sassu (Mark Frechette, Zabriskie Point), and murderous careerist Major Malchiodi (Franco Graziosi, Duck, You Sucker).
Based on soldier Emilio Lussu's eyewitness account "Un anno sull'Altipiano" (A Year On The Plateau), Rosi states that with Many Wars Ago he "wasn't interested in telling a story, but to recount the behavior of men." The downside of this one vs. the other approach is its tendency make the characters more political pawns than people, because they represent ideas instead of lives. How (comparatively) little this diminishes the impact of the film as a whole serves as testament to the project's strength.
Raro Video comes on strong with a very watchable post-restoration Blu-ray transfer (one of the bonus features details this process with side-by-side, before and after images) that is slightly controversial, due to its 1.37:1/1080p full frame presentation here, as opposed to its original 1.66:1 theatrical ratio. Adding to the mystery of where, why, and how big is enough, the director gave his approval to this print! No complaints about the dynamic DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio track in Italian, with optional English subtitles.
Bonus features include a very interesting and informative half-hour interview with Rosi about the film's genesis, process, and the subsequent reactions to it. There's also a pdf copy of the original screenplay (available only to those who have computers with a Blu-ray drive), and an excellent twenty page booklet tucked into the case.
Unrelentingly grim and unnervingly on-point, Many Wars Ago (Blu-ray) should be part of any serious film collector's canon.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Raro Video
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