El Alamein: In the Line of Fire – Movie Review
El Alamein: The Line of Fire (2002) is an Italian film about the plight of the Italian soldiers during and immediately after the climactic battle of North Africa at El Alamein. It won three Italian Academy Awards (best editing, sound design, photography) and has done the rounds at various international film festivals. Given the source of the film, I was very curious to see how the Italian production team would handle Italian participation in North Africa. In my estimation, it was portrayed admirably well.
The movie basically assumes you have some knowledge of Italian participation in World War II, and does little to set the stage or provide background. One can only assume that Italians in general are well aware of what happened, so as not to need a primer. However, to briefly summarize, the Italians were unprepared, ill-equipped, and only half-heartedly interested in being in the fighting of World War II. Largely victims of Mussolini and his imperial ambitions, the Italian soldiers were sent out to fight a war in which they often had to be rescued by the more disciplined and better equipped German army. Most relevant to this film, the Italians of North Africa fought mostly on foot – not having the motorized capabilities of the German or the Allied forces. Obviously walking around the desert is not the way to win a war…and so they were assigned the least desirable positions (such as garrison duty), and were commonly left behind or surrounded when faster enemy motorized units were involved.
El Alamein is the story of one soldier (Serra) who volunteers to fight for Italy, after believing the propaganda that the Italians were about to march into Alexandria. His first posting is deep in the desert on the southern end of the El Alamein line with the Pavia infantry division, facing the British. We are introduced to his new unit, and the abhorrent conditions in which they were forced to live. Supposedly taken from first hand accounts, the imagery is stark and the conditions are simulated so well you really believe this is 1942. Learning about the life in the trenches is where this film really shines, and it is easy to empathize with the men of Serra’s unit who know they have been given a rotten, and ultimately futile task. When the Tommies finally attack, I was torn as to which side I should root. In the end, as with all wars, there are only losers…and both sides suffer grieviously.
Yet, the last half of the movie shows the true losers at El Alamein were the shattered Italians. No longer holed up in their dirty defensive trenches, they are ordered to fall back into the desert – all the while the retreating Germans and the pursuing British are well past them in the north. On foot, the Italians became victims of their environment. Only near the end do we finally get a brief glimpse of the Italian Generals in charge; they laughably instruct the bedraggled soldiers to keep up the good fight. Of course, they promptly drive off and leave their men to the wasteland… As was true in reality, many Italians chose to be captured by the British rather than die in the desert well behind the front lines.
The movie does have some technical flaws, with the most notable showing British "88s" bombarding the Italian positions (the Germans actually had the famed "88" Anti-Aircraft Artillery piece). The few large pieces of hardware are modern tanks dressed up in camoflage netting so as to hide their appearance, and they are used at night (which was historical) to further disguise them. Presumably due to technical reasons the tanks attacked with headlights beaming (they would have been invisible otherwise) which would have made for some tasty targets in real life. The battle scenes are brief and frantic, but are clearly not the centerpiece of the movie.
This movie is about the men of Italy, and their life (and suffering) in the desert of North Africa. It is a sad statement on their condition, but ultimately it rings true. There is very little politicizing or revisionism as I feared might be introduced. While many of us know the story of vast number of Italian soldiers who were bagged in World War II by the allies, this movie does a fine job of showing that these soldiers were as valiant and honorable as any other nation, despite often being set up to fail. The final shot showing the memorial for those men is a poignant ending to the film. As was the intention of director Enzo Monteleone, these men have been given a fitting treatment, and shall not be forgotten.
DVD particulars: The DVD is in Italian 5.1, with English subtitles. The film quality is pretty good, save some of the night shots which are a bit grainy. There is a very short "making of" special feature, and some TV promos for the movie. Overall though, the DVD content is quite lacking. I would have loved to have seen some historical pieces added to the disc to further educate the viewer on the Itialian army, El Alamein, and the war in North Africa.
Last Word: This movie is not a big budget war or action film, but is worth a look if you want to see an Italian perspective of the men who fought in the North African theater of World War II.
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