Based on a novel by Ugo Pirro, Le soldatesse (The Camp Followers; Des filles pour l’armée) is one of the finest films from Italy about war since Roberto Rossellini’s Paisà (1946) nearly twenty years earlier. (The finest between—from France and Italy: Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 Les carabinièrs, whose script Rossellini co-authored.) The director is Valerio Zurlini, whose Cronaca fami...
Based on a novel by Ugo Pirro, Le soldatesse (The Camp Followers; Des filles pour l’armée) is one of the finest films from Italy about war since Roberto Rossellini’s Paisà (1946) nearly twenty years earlier. (The finest between—from France and Italy: Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 Les carabinièrs, whose script Rossellini co-authored.) The director is Valerio Zurlini, whose Cronaca familiare (Family Diary, 1962), from Vasco Pratolini’s autobiographical novel, is (as I say in my piece about it) the most moving film about brothers I have seen. Le soldatesse, which is almost as trenchant and is less literary, is a more fully realized film. It is from France, West Germany and Yugoslavia as well as Italy.
At the center of the story is the armed transport of a fleet of women, prostitutes because of the poverty with which war has afflicted them, in order to service Italian soldiers in brothels in the 1940s during World War II. The action begins in Athens, Greece, and proceeds north. The truck ride is over treacherous mountain terrain, and the whole ordeal evolves into a metaphor for war. Meanwhile, the transport itself becomes embroiled in war’s shell fire, killing some of the women and shattering the souls of the survivors. Therefore, while on one level the film is metaphorical and symbolical, on another it is naturalistic and realistic—one might say, stylistically, neorealistic, except that, substantively, we confront here faux-neorealism, since authentic neorealism can’t withstand the division in time between events and their portrayal as they do here. Le soldatesse is more likely to have been inspired by the prize-winning success of Rossellini’s General della Rovere (1959), his reaching for old glory, and Nanni Loy’s The Four Days of Naples (1962), than by Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945) and Paisà. It is shot in black-and-white. The cinematographer is Tonino delli Colli, who helped bring rough-hewn and gritty realism to The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964)—the visual style that (along with its Leftist politics) relates Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film to the neorealist movement in Italian cinema.
Zurlini’s film is also about the interaction amongst the three soldiers in charge of the transport and between them and (to begin with) the fifteen women. There are, in effect, two main characters, one from each group. Lieutenant Gaetano Martino is one protagonist; Eftichia, the most brooding and miserable of the prostitutes, the other. Martino’s military companions are Major Castagnoli and a sergeant. The sergeant, who at the start is most concerned about his horded money (he is the one poor officer), eventually relaxes into an earthy relationship with one of the women; likewise, young Martino is, at first, contemptuous of his assignment, regarding it as an absurdity in the midst of war, but he, too, eventually responds to the humanity of the women, in his case, of all the women, although he also falls in love with one in particular, Elenitza, the apparent leader of the group, and certainly the warmest, most open personality among the prostitutes. Castagnoli is the only one of the three soldiers who doesn’t change; he is the perfect image of unbending military authority. He somewhat recalls Lieutenant Colonel Owen Thursday in John Ford’s Fort Apache (1948), except that, at the last, Thursday does bend a little in order to protect the life of the cavalry officer whom his daughter loves. Castagnoli is a total monster of war, an embodiment of the monstrousness of humanity that leads nations to war. Meanwhile, the sergeant seems almost oblivious to war, while Martino is sick of it—heartsick, and sick to the bone, from the war in which he has been so long immersed.
Fort Apache is structured by the clashes between Thursday and the more humane officer under his command, Captain Kirby York. In Le soldatesse, Martino and Castagnoli also proceed along a collision course, theirs centering not on troops but on the women under their supervision. Throughout, Zurlini employs a visual device to characterize the officers and the women differently. Whereas the women are most often shot to stress their solidarity as a group, for instance, the camera picks them up all facing the camera, the men, particularly Martino and Castagnoli, converse with one another often without looking at one another, within the frame the back of one soldier facing the soldier with whom he is talking, or both facing in different directions. The cumulative effect is subtle and overwhelming; the women evolve into a symbol of the hope for peace, their own vulnerability underscoring the fragility of this hope, whereas the men evolve into a symbol of the grueling circumstance of war that endangers both the women’s hope and their lives. Le soldatesse confirms Zurlini as an astute and patient visual and dramatic artist.
However, there is one moment that makes this claim more powerfully than even anything in Cronaca familiare. Le soldatesse contains a brilliant image—one, actually, leading to and enriching another. Somewhere along their route to the destination that the convoy never, in fact, reaches, the group is attacked, bringing the war (for us) from the background of the film into the women’s laps, annihilating the difference between background and foreground, and resulting in human death. One of the stricken women lies on the ground, dead. In this close middle-distant shot, Martino covers the corpse with a blanket. Martino’s hand solemnly and caringly weighs in gently on the blanket. The next shot is a long shot: a panoramic view of the truck as it continues on its mission along a road winding up through the mountainous terrain. At such a distance the truck is little more than a moving dot, while the steep, rough terrain is massive. Guided by what we have just seen in the previous shot, we now see what appears to be a gigantic handprint in the rock. It’s the impression of war. It deepens the nature of the death that we have just witnessed and magnifies it to suggest the magnitude of suffering and death that war inflicts. The moment is as poetic and as profoundly moving as any shot in Aleksander Dovzhenko’s Arsenal (1929), one of the greatest films about war.
There is another grueling sequence involving the firing squad deaths of a handful of “traitors”—a scene to which Eftichia, our surrogate here, responds as though she also were being shot. After the prisoners are lined up, one of the soldiers about to dispatch them snaps at them, “Arrivederci!” (For all my remaining days, that word may never sound the same to me.) A priest intervenes, pleading that the men about to be shot—one of them, really, is a boy—be allowed to pray. He is ordered to be quick. From left to right he proceeds dutifully, pausing by each man, commending his soul to heaven and making the sign of the cross. After he is done, moved to go beyond the bounds of his religious office, the priest hugs the last man and then proceeds left to hug the man next to this one. In a flash, we realize that this instinctive act of decency and humanity is also necessary, for absent it the priest’s prayers would have been tantamount to a benediction and sanctification of war. It’s as powerful a moment as any in Rome, Open City, and as fresh, warm and unexpected.
The acting is this film (like the acting in Cronaca familiare) is to die for. Marie Laforêt gives the performance of a lifetime as Eftichia, whose soul bears the handprint of war. Forgive me, but it had never occurred to me that Laforêt might function as such a strong actress; one of the marvels of her accomplishment is that she executes her role within the limitations of only one or two notes, thus enabling her Eftichia to embody not only a hatred of war but also the human reduction, brought about by war, that such monotonous negative energy imposes. Like Martino, Eftichia always seems spiritually close to death because war and the continuation of war have robbed her of life’s possibilities. Nor have I ever regarded Tomas Milian—the filmmaker in Michelangelo Antonioni’s wondrous Identification of a Woman (1982)—as a superb actor. (Too many spaghetti westerns!) Cuban-born (as Tomás Quintín Rodríguez), Milian is probably the only stalwart in Italian cinema who was trained as an actor, in New York, by Lee Strasberg. His Martino is a magnificent rendering of a soul sickened by war. Now, Anna Karina is often a terrific actress, especially for Godard, and her Elenitza must be accounted one of her most poignant characterizations. Karina takes her part to its emotional limit. Mario Adorf is excellent as Castagnoli, and there is good work from Lea Massari and Milena Dravic as two of the other women.