Le soldatesse

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Valerio Zurlini’s WWII epic Le soldatesse (1965) follows Lt. Martino (Tomas Milian) as he escorts a truck carrying prostitutes (including the iconic Marie Laforêt, Anna Karina, and Valeria Moriconi) from one military base to the next, heading north through Albania during the Italian occupation of Greece in 1942. Le soldatesse is a study in the loss of innocence and the breakdown of society, documenting not only atrocities committed by the Axis forces but also the moral degradation of interpersonal interactions. Like the character Eftichia (Laforêt) in the film, Zurlini fears that the horrors and human toll of WWII is so profound that Europe will never truly heal nor forget.

Le soldatesse is critical of the Italian armed forces and uses the characters of Castagnoli (Mario Adorf) and Alessi (Aleksandar Gavric) to explore the inherent dichotomy of that institution with Castagnoli representing the working class “everyman” and Alessi the fanatical fascist. Caught in the middle of these two poles is the protagonist Lt. Martino. Martino represents not only Zurlini’s own moral conflict regarding the war but he also serves as an audience proxy. Le soldatesse is told from Martino’s perspective, placing the conflict between Martino’s own sense of morality and the immorality of the army at the forefront of the film.

The paradox of Martino’s character is that his humanism doesn’t allow for the army’s commodification of sex workers. The spectacles of dehumanizing women that populate the film disturb Martino as much as they upset the audience, yet he is powerless to take any action because of his rank and position as an officer in the army. This quandary makes Martino a character of the post-neo realist cinema of Michelangelo Antonioni and Pier Paolo Pasolini while Zurlini’s direction and mise en scène place Le soldatesse firmly in the tradition of neo realism cinematographically. The internal organic conflict of Martino is externalized in Zurlini’s intentionally juxtaposing style.

There is a third dichotomy in Le soldatesse that exists within the cohort of prostitutes. The characters Eftichia and Elenitza (Karina) are best friends yet each woman represents a fundamentally different relationship with survival and prostitution. Elenitza clings to life no matter how dire her situation, wholly dedicated to survival while Eftichia experiences the same events and feels forced into her situation in order to survive. Elenitza would feel she had betrayed herself if she failed to embrace life no matter the circumstances while Eftichia feels she has had to betray her self, her moral code, in order to live.

Zurlini doesn’t attempt to solve or answer these moral conflicts. Le soldatesse is a kind of study on the ravages of war. The fact that every aspect of the plot is represented by juxtaposing halves reveals the existential crisis that Zurlini locates at the heart of the very nature of war. Le soldatesse is an obvious precursor to La pelle (1981) and other Italian films made by the generation born during or just before WWII. Even though Zurlini was much older, his films suggest a methodology for processing the traumas of the past without sentiment but with psychological and political complexity.