by Ben Beard
The brief, sad lives of the world’s doomed soldiers.
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Beginning with an old school introduction—narration over a drawn map—The Fallen follows the lives of four different paramilitary groups, Italian partisans, American GIs, German shock troops, and Italian fascists, through the desolate outpost of World War II known as the Gothic Zone, a mountainous region in Italy.
The story begins with an Italian-American GI making friends with a local gangster named Rossini, where they play chess and drink wine together. The GI is a member of a quartermaster group, supply men who never see any action. But the front line of the Gothic Zone is in constant engagement with the enemy and needs supplies. Led by a drunken Lieutenant, the untested Americans head into the hills towards the Gothic line .
At the same time, a German officer and his starving men fight off Italian partisans a few kilometers from the actual fighting. Promised reinforcements, the officer is disappointed to learn his backup is a small group of disorganized Italians. Forced to share rations and living quarters, the Italian and German soldiers squabble and fight. Italian guerillas add to the chaos, dividing the loyalties of the men and further angering the Germans.
As the various groups move towards each other, the characters on both sides emerge as basically the same likeable young men with dreams and desires totally unconnected to the task at hand, overgrown children struggling to survive the semi-comic adventure that will leave most of them dead. It is a zero-sum game, and the righteous die side by side with the wicked.
War movies are tough to do without major financial backing. A Midnight Clear and the films of Samuel Fuller are the only examples I can think of. But in lieu of a big budget, director Ari Taub instead delivers a series of nice moments. There’s a French or Italian feel to the film, with an emphasis on emotional immediacy over unnecessary backstory. The movie unfolds in a really satisfying way, sort of like real life, with one scene sort of lilting into the next. A story begins to emerge halfway through the film, but the movie is best when simply observing—cold soldiers eating their first hot meal in weeks, lonely officers walking in solitude, two officers sipping the last drops of wine when they know there probably won’t be any replacement, men smoking what might be their last cigarettes.
A strong, grimy visual feel dates the movie in a nice way; it looks like a film from the 1970s. Beautiful on-location shooting—misty green mountains and fall-colored forests—serve as the backdrop to this ambitious movie that follows a complex system of characters. The film offers some very fine acting and good direction and it all amounts to a solid, entertaining film that sticks with you after you’ve passed through the credits.
As is often the case with independent films, the movie’s biggest weakness is the musical score, which at times is great. But the music, which alternates between different groups of people, isn’t always up to the task, sometimes sounding tinny and cheap. When it’s good, it’s great, but at times the music falls short of the task.
The Americans move closer to the front line, a creeping existential terror growing stronger with each step. The Germans and the Italians, meanwhile, are struggling with lack of supplies and a burgeoning dislike stemming from their cultural divide. The highlight of the film: a fight between a German and an Italian over a ladle while their fellow soldiers cheer them on. It’s funny and sad and exhilarating and unnecessary, the two men rolling around in the muck over an old spoon. And it exemplifies the film’s odd tone, switching back and forth from humor to horror.
The film wisely begins to focus on Italian foot-soldier Salvatore, a peasant killer locked into a situation he cannot understand. This illiterate, simple, and kind man hides depths of hatred and self-interest. He respects his commander for being a leader but resents him when he leads; he seems unbothered by the German occupation of Italy but blazes with anger at the Italian communists hoping to take over. Salvatore will kill his fellow Italians as easily as he will Americans, Nazis, or his friends. He is violent, ambiguous, sympathetic, and hateful—the perfect metaphor for war. But this isn’t ultimately a movie about one man, or even one group of men, but rather the causes and effects of warring factions, and thus after a brief meditation, the film moves on. Which is a pity. For Salvatore leaves the viewer salivating for more.
Moving from comedy to horror and back again, The Fallen has a formless, meandering quality that is a refreshing contrast to the highly formalized storytelling of Hollywood . At times it feels like a chess match, where pieces—pawns, kings, and queens—are systematically removed from the board. In the end, at the final carnage, it all seems pointless. But isn’t that the point after all? What else is there besides survival? What does the scheming, the quarreling, the maneuvering really amount to?
To the dead and the dying, let’s hope their stories—or fictional representations of their stories—somehow matter. For if they don’t, then what good are movies for, anyway?
Ben Beard lives and works in Iowa City. He’s never served in the military.
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