Filmmaker Ari Taub’s Last Letters from Monte Rosa is about as low impact a war movie as they come, a roughly eighty minute-long drama that eschews the you-are-there intensity of Saving Private Ryan or Das Boot (the latter clearly a thematic influence) for the more relaxed, episodic feel of Samuel Fuller’s The Big Red One.
Like Boot and Letters from Iwo Jima, Letters takes on the formidable challenge of humanizing the nominal villains of that war, namely, the Germans and the Italians. But most refreshing is the revelation of Italy as a country divided against itself during this time—the enemy on the ground is not the Allied forces, but the partisan Italian villagers who are rebelling against the German occupation and Mussolini’s rule. This creates a difficult conflict of interest for the Italian soldiers, led by war-weary lieutenant Gianini (the rugged Fabio Sartor, who brings to mind a young Jeroen Krabbe) who are sent as reinforcements for a German platoon under siege. Further complicating matters is the internecine tension between the German and Italian troops; the Germans dismiss the Italians as ruffians and cowards and the Italians resent the Germans with a mixture of envy and spite. One soldier sums up the task at hand as enabling the Germans “to steal our land with our help.”
It is this conflict that drew Taub to this material back in 1995. “Before Private Ryan reopened the floodgates for the genre,” he told me during our interview together. Taub, a Jewish American who speaks little of either language spoken by the cast adds, “we communicated with our eyes.” “I wanted to tell a story that involved Germans and Italians where they had to cooperate. Turns out that the only times in history when that has happened were Roman times and World War II.”
Financial shortages often slowed production down to a crawl and the film was shot in brief spurts over a five-year period, from 1998 to 2003. Taub spent years in the editing room after that. “Making this movie took longer than the war itself,” he quipped cheerfully. That there are no obvious continuity errors that I could spot given such a protracted shoot as this one was is a minor miracle. “One guy had a broken leg when we brought him back for a scene,” Taub recollects. “We just hid him behind a rock.” Clearly this was a labor of love for the director, his screenwriter Caio Ribeiro, and the international cast, a mix of locals and German and Italian veterans making their American debuts. The film was shot entirely in the northeastern United States.
And yet here’s wishing the story of the film itself were as compelling as its production. It’s affable enough, educational, even, but doesn’t seem to have any bigger ambition than that. It ambles along until the tense Tarantinoesque stand-off that happens midway through when the patroling Italian troops are ambushed by a smaller group of partisans. But most of “Letters” consists of meditative and occasionally humorous scenes, gracefully (if arbitrarily) embellished by excerpts from the actual soldiers’ letters home that give the film its title. It’s all perfectly watchable, but never the grabber it could have been had it focused more on, say, the unlikely gradual friendship between Gianini and his German counterpart lieutenant Gunther (played by a dead-on Tony Goldwynish Thomas Pohn), or the delightfully amoral wheeler-dealer Rossini, played by Carmine Raspaolo, who practically steals the movie. Taub commented to me, he was so great, we just had to keep coming up with new scenes for him.”
It would be unjust to dismiss Last Letters from Monte Rosa outright; the subject matter is risqué and the film brings new material on this much-covered subject to the table; but it also leaves one anticipating this director’s next effort. Let’s hope it won’t take him another decade.