Anna Karina Stars in “Dynamite” Drama of Italian WWII Tensions
DIRECTED BY VALERIO ZURLINI/ITALIAN/1965
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: OCTOBER 25, 2022/RARO VIDEO (via Kino Lorber)
About a month ago I created the short video review of Le Soldatesse (1965, directed by Valerio Zurlini) embedded on this page. My initial impressions were that I had discovered a significant but little-known Italian film that deserved a strong and enthusiastic recommendation. As I mentioned in the clip, I was initially intrigued simply by the opportunity to see Anna Karina act in a movie that didn’t involve Jean-Luc Godard even though the movie was made in the midst of her prime collaborations with the acclaimed director who also happened to be her husband throughout most of those years. While I thoroughly appreciated what she brought to the screen, there was much more to admire, and I mentioned several of them in that clip.
The story told in Le Soldatesse is based on a premise involving around a dozen young women in the early years of World War II who have been driven by poverty and general desperation to board a truck that will deliver them to various bordellos scattered across the Greek and Albanian countryside, where they will basically be at the service of Italian army soldiers. It’s a horrific set of circumstances to contemplate, but it’s also very believable that such activities involving sexual slavery and trafficking were fairly commonplace at certain places and times during the war (and in wars, generally speaking, throughout human history). This focus on the experience of young women exploited in this way during wartime is also not one that I’ve encountered with any frequency in watching many films set in that era, and that earned my respect along with creating intrigue at the novelty.
I recently rewatched the film just to confirm that it would hold up on a rewatch and perhaps even offer more in terms of enjoyment and insight. Again, I was pleased to see that my positive response and advocacy was well-founded. As more of an ensemble drama than a star vehicle for Anna K (who as it turns out isn’t even the main narrative focal point among the women in the cast), the screenwriters do a commendable job presenting the various characters in a diverse and intriguing range of moods, situations, and interpersonal encounters. Besides Karina, mention needs to be made of the strong contribution from Marie Laforet, a French pop star at the time, who carries one of the most tragic story lines all the way through to Le Soldatesse’s conclusion. Born in 1939, she drew on her own personal experience as a survivor of early childhood sexual trauma that occurred during the war after her father was made prisoner in Germany until that nation collapsed in 1945.
The narrative arc moves efficiently over the course of two hours, introducing us to the main characters and alternating between perspectives of sociopolitical critique, dark-tinged comedy, dramatic suspense and military action. The casting of almost uniformly gorgeous young female models in the roles of prostitutes carried and delivered like freight from one stop to the next could have a diminishing effect on any viewers who might find fault in such casting decisions, but the women do have agency as characters. Even considering a brief outbreak of a wartime version of a “wet T-shirt contest”, the female actors do more in their respective roles than just provide pleasant eye candy.
Though not explicit in its visual depictions, Le Soldatesse’s context and dialogue provide indirectly grim allusions to emotional and physical abuse, balancing the emotional heaviness with interludes of sexy banter and idyllic joy in the midst of chaos, before concluding with an ultimate message about the nauseating wastefulness and tragedy that the Second World War brings to so many lives, inflicting undeserved pain and misery on millions for no clear or justifiable purpose that would excuse so much personal suffering.
The effectiveness of the film’s message is enhanced by it being a very well-crafted and visually engaging production, shot in rugged locations and landscapes by an excellent DP (Tonino Delli Colli, who went from here to shoot The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly for Sergio Leone and on to many impressive accomplishments from there). The soundtrack relies heavily on an almost stereo-typical Italian “road theme” melody that is used at various tempos to establish the emotional tone. No mention is made on the disc or in the packaging about any special restoration work that was done on this title, but I was more than satisfied sound and image in the home video presentation.
If there’s a flaw to be found with the release, it’s just that we don’t get much in the way of supplements. The only extra on the disc is a 10-minute video introduction by Marco Muller, an academic and film festival director based in Shanghai. He does offer some helpful context and background on directory Valerio Zurlini and the making of Le Soldatesse, but that’s all. No insert, no commentary track, not even any trailers. So the only reason to buy this disc is to own a copy of the film itself.
Even though the Kino Lorber Blu-ray has been available since the end of October 2022, it looks like the film is still in process of being noticed or written about, as I’ve not found many mentions of it in recently dated articles online. (But here’s a great in-depth review of Le Soldatesse written back in 2007). I attribute that to the relative obscurity of director Valerio Zurlini, who had a lengthy enough career of 20+ years in the Italian film industry. Zurlini won a few film festival awards in the 1960s – La Soldetesse took home a Special Silver Prize in the 1965 Moscow Film Festival, which may be a slight giveaway on Zurlini’s overall anti-Fascist political point of view in this film – but he didn’t have that signature breakout hit that would have earned him a stronger lasting reputation. This movie then faded from memory due subsequent lack of distribution in recent decades, despite the demonstrated appeal of Anna Karina among aficionados of 1960s nouvelle vague cinema and many others who enjoy her work simply based on her appealing presentation as a film actor.
Perhaps the problem isn’t so much from Zurlini’s films though, and there may be other reasons for his lack of exposure among prominent directors of this era. A pair of films he made in the early 1960s, Girl With a Suitcase starring a young Claudia Cardinale, and Family Diary, which tied with Ivan’s Childhood for a Golden Lion award at Venice in 1962, seem to be good picks for future releases if Kino has the option, and I’d like to see them in a good transfer! I hope that Le Soldatesse finds its audience and gives Kino (or someone, anyone) the nudge to make them available.