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No Shame Films presents
Desert of the Tartars (1976)

"Sooner or later, in the darkness, something is going to happen."
- Tronk (Francisco Rabal)

Review By: Jeff Wilson  
Published: January 29, 2006

Stars: Vittorio Gassman, Giuliano Gemma, Philippe Noiret, Jacques Perrin, Francisco Rabal, Fernando Rey, Max Von Sydow, Jean-Louis Tritignant, Laurent Terzieff
Director: Valerio Zurlini

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 02h:27m:18s
Release Date: January 31, 2006
UPC: 882853000990
Genre: war

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- A-B+B+ A+

DVD Review

Do you feel like your life is spent in a meaningless series of dull, petty tasks, waiting for an event of some kind to make it relevant to you and others? Have I got a film for you! Although it may make you feel worse; in fact, in probably will. Valerio Zurlini's Desert of the Tartars gets saddled on the back cover with the unfortunate high concept description "Beau Geste meets Waiting for Godot," which, let's face it, is not going to shift units, as the suits might say. Those who don't mind a thought-provoking, slow-paced film, however, will find enough here to chew on to make the journey worthwhile.

Drogo (Jacques Perrin) is a young lieutenant fresh out of the military academy, and destined for his first posting in a country of vague Eastern European location. He is due at Fort Bastiano, a remote location on the fringe of the empire, near the border shared with the Tartars, who are the enemy. Drogo arrives to find nothing like what he imagined. The isolation of the fort, and the tediousness of life within it, drive him to request a transfer, which the imperious Major Mattis (Giuliano Gemmi) agrees to. The catch however, is that it has to be on medical grounds in order to protect Drogo's career, and the next medical exams are not for four months. Drogo agrees to wait out the four months, in the meantime learning of mysterious sightings of what could be Tartar troops. Drogo's chance for escape arrives, but he lets it slide, having found himself pulled into Bastiano's ways and expectations of action that never arrives. When action finally does arrive, a weary, older Drogo finds himself a victim of fate.

The uncredited star of the film must be its setting. Filmed in Iran at the stunning, 2000-year-old Bam Citadel, if ever a location underlined the mood of a film it was this one. Stark, devoid of life, and forbidding, Bam provides an amazing backdrop for this study in alienation and frustration. Zurlini provides an unsubtle clue as to mental landscape of the film early on, as Drogo rides away into a lush green forest outside his hometown, exiting in the blasted landscape near Bastiano. The maze-like nature of the ruins surrounding Bam add to its qualities; Zurlini never allows us to really understand the layout of the fort or its surroundings.

The source novel by author Dino Buzzati was written while he slaved away in a newspaper office, so the film has been seen as applying to any dreary task with no apparent conclusion or payoff to it, rather than an overtly military one, and that interpretation certainly holds true. Drogo finds himself at the mercy of upper management, as it were, and he hunts in vain for some kind of validation to make his time at the fort something other than the colossal waste of time it turns out to be. Drogo foregoes a normal life, family, and everything else that makes life worth living chasing something that never arrives. Even those who get their desire find emptiness; like Drogo, Simeon (Helmut Griem) has spent his career at the fort and is in charge when the awaited attack finally comes, but he finds himself paralyzed by indecision and fear.

The film benefits from a series of excellent actors, including Max Von Sydow as a man dedicated to the fort despite or perhaps because of an early career failure there; Giuliano Gemmi as the hardcase military man; Vittorio Gassman as the cultured colonel in charge when Drogo arrives. Perrin carries the film, as it is his journey, and he does a reasonable job. Fernando Rey has a small role as a wrecked, drug-addicted lieutenant colonel, and the only man at the fort who has actually seen action—yet another unsubtle clue that these men are perhaps chasing the wrong goal.

At 147 minutes, this film can be a struggle to endure at times, focusing as it does on something left more to the imagination than anything else, and what plot there is remains almost equally ethereal, but it does fit the overall idea of aimless drifting through life in search of a greater purpose or event to give it meaning, and finding that it doesn't exist. We can at least learn from the example provided.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.78:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen (the IMDb lists a 1.66:1 ratio, but I didn't notice any significant cramping of shots), the transfer looks fairly good, but the elements used have a decent amount of speckling and debris. One shot features heavy lines on the print. Otherwise, there is a pleasing level of film grain, and the transfer is otherwise excellent. The white English subtitles are easy to read, though they include some nagging typos.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: Despite listing an English mono track on the box, Italian mono is the only choice here. It sounds fine, with Ennio Morricone's moody score coming across well. The soundtrack occasionally has that disembodied feel that dubbed films sometimes have, but otherwise no complaints.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 13 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Documentaries
2 Featurette(s)
Packaging: unmarked keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual
Layers Switch: 01h:22m:02s

Extra Extras:
  1. Booklet with essays and filmographies
  2. Soundtrack CD
  3. Poster and stills gallery
Extras Review: In a lengthy interview with cinematographer Luciano Tovoli (34m:49s), he discusses his work with Zurlini in depth, as well other works, such as Argento's Suspiria. Two different interviews with actor Giuliano Gemmi wrap up the on-disc extras; the first, from 1989 (05m:11s), only touches on the film briefly, and could have been dispensed with. The other, made for this release (06m:10s), is solely dedicated to the film at hand and more worth the time. A very nice extra I'd love to see more of is the inclusion of a bonus CD with Ennio Morricone's score, mastered from recently discovered master tapes. It does not come in separate packaging, and it appears to differ from a previous release of the score, so Morricone collectors will be interested in that. Finally, an informative if brief booklet is included, which features a piece about the film by Chris D., previously seen contributing to several Japanese film DVDs, and biographical material on Zurlini, Tovoli, and novelist Dino Buzzati, whose 1938 novel was adapted for the film. The booklet also contains tracklistings and times for the soundtrack disc.

Extras Grade: A+


Final Comments

Not an easy film to sit through, but if viewers become accustomed to its rhythms, they may find a powerful experience waiting for them. No Shame's DVD includes some fine extras and a solid presentation of the film.


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