Italy’s experience in World War II — before switching sides after the fall of Mussolini — spawned a number of painful episodes, among them the devastating losses chronicled in “El Alamein: The Line of Fire.” While screenwriter-turned-director Enzo Monteleone’s third feature seems initially to move in circles, taking too much time to pull its central characters into focus, the drama builds a cumulative impact, becoming a steadily more moving statement on the sorrow of war, the horror of death and the hollowness of heroism. Key festival exposure could open international arthouse doors.
Unlike many revisionist WWII histories, Monteleone’s film looks not at the moral conflict of serving a Fascist army but at a group of soldiers divorced from any apparent ideology — isolated and bewildered, disregarded by their German allies and given muddled guidance by Mussolini’s military hierarchy.
Stationed on the remote, landmine-infested southern frontline of the Egyptian desert in 1942, a group of Italian soldiers endures ground and air attacks from the British forces while suffering conditions of extreme hardship — debilitating heat by day and cold by night, dysentery, hunger, dehydration, a severely depleted arms supply and a futile wait for backup.
The platoon is led by Lt. Fiore (Emilio Solfrizzi), who dutifully follows orders, often suppressing his urge to question the rationale behind them. His second-in-command is Sgt. Rizzo (Pierfrancesco Favino), an uneducated but dependable soldier homesick for Italy. New arrival and the youngest of the group is Serra (Paolo Briguglia), a well-read student volunteer hoping to taste adventure and see Africa, deluded by Rome propaganda into thinking the war is virtually over.
Wavering between demoralized boredom, discomfort and fear, the meandering and overlong early depiction of the outpost’s daily grind sparks to life in key scenes such as the arrival by mistake of a truckload of shoe polish and of Il Duce’s personal horse for the supposed victory march into Alexandria, and an expedition by Rizzo and Serra into the harsh desert lowlands to locate missing soldiers.
The drama begins to gather tension after a devastating attack by the English that lasts an entire night, leaving heavy losses. The series of misguided orders and the sense of rudderless abandonment and confusion that follow as the soldiers crisscross the desert to fill gaps in the frontline creates a plaintive mood of unspoken bitterness, incomprehension and desperation.
While the characters are slow to emerge, the ensemble cast gives measured, unshowy performances. Key roles are filled by little-known or upcoming actors, with more established names appearing only briefly, including Silvio Orlando as a tragically disillusioned general in one haunting scene. Favino and Solfrizzi provide nuanced portrayals of conflicted men, while Briguglia conveys the green soldier’s shock but nonetheless a fresher, still open outlook that offers an effective counterpoint.
Screenwriter of Oscar-winner “Mediterraneo,” Monteleone graduates confidently to a far more physically demanding project after his narrowly actorish debut “The Real Life on Antonio H.” and his more interesting sophomore feature, the eccentric siege movie “Outlaw.”
Maintaining a coherent line with his earlier work and addressing pic’s themes with subtlety and restraint, Monteleone centers “El Alamein” squarely on the personal story rather than on the historical conflict. Aided by Cecilia Zanuso’s fragmented editing, battle scenes are staged with considerable emotional impact, while effects work is first-rate.
Daniele Nannuzzi’s controlled widescreen lensing brings out the parched colors and hot earth tones of the vast desert landscapes (locations in Morocco and Egypt were used), while transcendental duo Pivio and Aldo De Scalzi’s eclectic, brooding score folds together synthesizer themes with more traditional orchestral work and Mid-Eastern vocals.