Pic belongs to that rich subgenre, the rear-guard action film, that spawned such dark Hollywood classics as "Bataan."
Last Letters From Monte Rosa,” Ari Taub’s WWII drama about a ragtag bunch of doomed troops trying to hold back a superior enemy advance, belongs to that rich subgenre, the rear-guard action film, that spawned such dark Hollywood classics as “Bataan.” But, like Clint Eastwood in his “Letters From Iwo Jima,” Taub has chosen to tell the tale from the Axis side. Shot in the northeastern U.S. with imported Italian and German actors, this low-budget curio feels remarkably authentic but lacks a core story structure. Pic, which opened Friday at Brooklyn’s IndieScreen, is an oddball calling card for its helmer.
Many actors and scenes from the film are repurposed wholesale from Taub’s earlier WWII indie, “The Fallen.” But whereas that film’s vignettes featured German, Italian and American armed forces, here the Americans figure as a largely undifferentiated enemy, the conflict arising instead from tensions between the partnered German and Italian armies.
Pic was inspired by the discovery of a sack of undelivered letters from Axis soldiers 50 years after they were penned. A tattered group of German troops in northern Italy during the closing days of the war are joined by an equally ragged squad of Italian soldiers. Entrenched near a pass, the mixed company, short on supplies and steadily reduced by American bombs and partisan snipers, await the Allied advance. The Germans make no secret of their contempt for their Mediterranean brethren, and the Italians are sick of being fed half-rations and treated like second-class citizens.
The situation is exacerbated by the Italians’ unwillingness to directly engage the partisans, their fellow countrymen. Indeed, a peculiarly Italian take on a Mexican standoff in the woods, between partisans and Il Duce loyalists, receives substantial screen time and typifies the odd mix of combat tension and ironic distance that characterizes Taub’s film. A wily local war profiteer (Carmine Raspaolo) represents yet another character variant.
Cultural values separate the soldiers but class solidarity unites their officers. If the pic contains a central strand, it is the growing respect between German Lt. Gunther (Thomas Pohn) and his Italian counterpart, Gianini (Fabio Sartor). At one point, Gianini wonders aloud if the Germans are indeed superior, a mild shocker until one recalls that he is speaking as a military officer commanding demoralized soldiers in a politically divided land.
“Letters” was assembled over a seven years for a reported budget of $350,000, a meager sum belied by the excellence of the period detail and high-caliber thesping. Taub has fabricated discrete, believable scenes from a hypothetical war film, but the war film itself has gone AWOL; strangely, the pic gets all the difficult parts of moviemaking right, lacking only the 25-word pitch that ties it all together.