The Desert of the Tartars

Posted on Wednesday, March 16, 2011, under ,

Directed by Zurlini in 1976 (his ultimate film), an epic in which hardly anything happens for two and a half hours – apart from people growing old, leaving their posts or getting promoted. So why do viewers get sucked in by films of this kind? It’s the imagery, it’s the characters, it’s the plain old suffering, stupid. Highly ponderous stuff. Existentialism at its best. The absurdity of human endeavour, crashed hopes, hardline pessimism, anti-heroism, the very malignancy of life – the stuff that makes us human. Well, some of us perhaps. Ah, and that mesmerizing desert, its beauty, its restrained cruelty.

The film follows Drogo, an officer in the Austrian army, from the moment he is sent to his first assignment as a young man to a lonely fort Bastiano, nicknamed ‘dead border station’, lying at a desert’s edge where the Tartar attack is permanently imminent. The film, among other things, is a study of the ‘four stages’ of a man’s career: at first Drogo is ambitious, idealistic and inevitably bored at the outpost, desperate to leave; after a while he begins to rationalize his inactivity by the belief that he would eventually leave at some point; when the chance finally comes certain conditions do not allow it and the man faces up to the possibility he will never be able to leave; in key decision moments his sense of duty gets the better of him, as he gradually grows more passive and obedient and is rewarded for such behaviour with absurd promotions; in the end the man has become an inseparable part of the institution and is desperate to stay where he by now wholly belongs. But it's something more than just passivity and resignation. Something more sinister, something akin to a false hope, that vague feeling lurking in the depths of our being, a feeling carrying the latent, irrational, expectation that our moment is bound to arrive. Drogo seems to have spent his entire life waiting for his most personal hour to come, however ambivalent the moment was to be (possibly a show of bravery and the ensuing military glory?). But the hour never strikes. When at last Drogo’s health deteriorates, he becomes an anachronism, a walking detritus, resembling the very blasé, ineffectual officer he would once loath to become.

The ‘inevitable’ denouement, such as it stands, will in some modern viewers likely elicit their own career paths of undeserving, miserable jobs, lifelong devotion to a company, and thousands upon thousands of hours of those arduous daily routines. One of my favourite lines: Drogo (Jacques Perrin): ‘I was sent here by mistake. Doctor Rovin (Trintignant): ‘Here or elsewhere... we're all somewhere by mistake’.

Rarely in a film can one see a single edifice exerting such overwhelming, insidious power over the fate of its inhabitants, as in ‘Il Deserto dei Tartari’. This magnificent structure, the film’s setting, is Bam Citadel, located in southeastern Iran. Arg-e Bam used to be the largest adobe building in the world until it was more or less completely destroyed by an earthquake in 2003 which, incidentally, killed more than 26,000 people (!). The then president of Iran announced after the earthquake the citadel would be rebuilt. Being the World Heritage site several countries are helping its reconstruction. For its part ‘Japan has granted some US$1.3 million to Iran for the reconstruction, and has supported this project by sending equipment and creating the 3D plan of Bam Citadel to increase the accuracy of the renovation’(Wikipedia). Right now it looks like they are going to need that money back doesn’t it. 

                                              The immense Bam Citadel before the quake

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