The Desert of the Tartars

tartar1.jpg

The Desert of the Tartars (1976), an Italian film directed by Valerio Zurlini, is another of those cinematic works whose description in books would leave me tantalised and frustrated. A brief entry would tell you that the film existed but when would ever get to see it? Last week I finally got to see this one thanks to a recent restoration via a French blu-ray disc which, for once, had English subtitles.

tartar2.jpg

Zurlini’s film is an adaptation of The Tartar Steppe, the most popular of Dino Buzzati’s novels, and for a long time the only book of his that you could easily find in English. I often feel a little hypocritical when it comes to Buzzati. I’ve been telling people for years to look out for his strange stories—the phrase was used as a subtitle for a Calder & Boyars edition of Catastrophe—even though the translated collections were all out of print. The Tartar Steppe has been reprinted more than most yet I still haven’t read it. I’ll be correcting this now I’ve seen the film. Buzzati’s story concerns a young soldier, Lieutenant Drogo, being posted to a distant border fortress where a small company of soldiers awaits a barbarian invasion which they believe will come from the surrounding desert. All the soldiers are eager to experience the thrill of battle yet the invasion has so far refused to arrive. Matters are complicated when officers who were determined to stay are sent back home while Drogo, who says he was posted there by mistake, finds the place impossible to leave. A Cavafy poem, Waiting for the Barbarians, is credited as an inspiration for this, but the spectre of Franz Kafka haunts any story with a deferred or inaccessible resolution, and in that respect Buzzati’s novel, which was published in 1940, may be one of the first to learn from the example set by The Castle.

tartar3.jpg

Jean-Louis Bertucelli and André G. Brunelin wrote the screenplay which was apparently criticised for not doing justice to Buzzati’s story. I can’t comment, obviously, but it wouldn’t be the first time the subtleties of a novel have been lost in the translation to the screen. Faithful or not, I was happy to be watching the thing at all, and besides which, familiarity with the source material can sometimes blind you to the other qualities of an adaptation. The film has a minimal score by Ennio Morricone, and an impressive cast that includes Philippe Noiret, Fernando Rey, Jean-Louis Trintignant and a dubbed Max von Sydow.

tartar4.jpg

It also looks fantastic, with photography by Luciano Tovoli and spectacular locations in the Iranian desert. The ancient Bam citadel at Arg-e Bam in southern Iran provided the location for the Bastiani fortress, a massive and exceptionally photogenic ruin. A note at the end of the restored print tells us that the citadel and surrounding area was devastated in 2003 by an earthquake that claimed 26,000 lives and levelled the place. The citadel has since been rebuilt, so the film also serves now as a record of its former appearance.

tartar5.jpg

As for Buzzati, it’s still a mystery why his books haven’t been made more widely available in English but matters improved recently with the republication of Catastrophe and Other Stories. He was also an accomplished artist whose illustrations are deserving of more attention. Some of these were featured at 50 Watts a few years ago, together with samples from his book-length graphic adaptation of the Orpheus myth, Poem Strip, from 1969.

Weekend links 442

buzzcocks.jpg

Orgasm Addict (1977). Design by Malcolm Garrett; collage by Linder.

• RIP Pete Shelley, Buzzcock and Homosapien. Shelley is celebrated for being in the vanguard of Britain’s punk movement, of course. (Buzzcocks’ Spiral Scratch was the UK’s first independent single.) But he also loved Can, recorded an album of electronic drones (Sky Yen), and in 1983 successfully blended home-computer graphics with his own brand of superior electronic pop music. Related: Malcolm Garrett’s Buzzcocks band logo at Fonts In Use; B’dum, B’dum: Tony Wilson in 1978 talking to Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto about Buzzcocks and Magazine.

• Winter demands ghost stories so Adam Scovell suggests 10 great winter ghost films. Related: Alexandra Heller-Nicholas presents an A–Z of Women’s Horror Filmmaking.

Carey Dunne on the rise of underground LSD guides for psychotherapy. Related: “Psychedelics change the perception of time,” says Shayla Love.

• Ex-Neu! guitarist Michael Rother receives the box-set treatment early next year when the Groenland label reissues his early solo albums.

Jodorowsky, an exhibition devoted to the writer and director, will be staged at El Museo del Barrio, New York, from February next year.

• “From Georges Méliès to Bill and Ted, movie hells remain seriously in hock to the Judeo-Christian playbook,” says Anne Billson.

The Owl’s Legacy, Chris Marker’s 13-part documentary series on Greek culture, receives its debut DVD release.

Topic II (1989), a short film by Pascal Baes of pixilated dancers in the night streets of Prague.

• Mix of the week: Secret Thirteen Mix 274 by Koray Kantarcioglu.

• We are the first humans to hear the winds of the planet Mars.

• Patrick Magee reads The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Jean-Louis Trintignant Day.

• Mongolian biker rock: Wolf Totem by The HU.

The Quietus albums of the year.

Hell (2001) by Techno Animal ft. Dälek | Hell’s Winter (2011) by Earth | Hell A (2017) by The Bug vs. Earth