“Desert of the Tartars,” in full restored glory

About the restored “Desert of the Tartars” (“Tartar Steppe” in the English title) screened at the last Cannes Film Festival as part of Cannes Classics, Beatrice de Mondenard quotes in the “Cannes Festival Daily” Angelo Cosimano of Digimage Classics, the company that carried out the restoration:

“From the first tests, the richness of the content on the negatives deeply astonished us, almost bowled us over.” The 4K restoration of this 1976 masterpiece by Valerio Zurlini (who signed here his last film before committing suicide in 1983), “used the original negative,” writes Mondenard, “under the supervision of Luciano Tovoli, the film’s director of photography. Similarly, the colour grading was conducted in record time (ten days), which is testament to the quality of the shots taken at the time. The sound restoration was carried out by Gérard Lamps, who had to compose with a monophone soundtrack made up of dubbed international stars and French stars with familiar voices. The restoration, financed by the CNC [Centre National de la Cinématographie, a French public institution] as part of the assistance plan for the restoration and digitization of heritage films, was organized by Jacques Perrin, who was the film’s co-producer in 1976.”

This restoration, long overdue, finally makes it possible to view this legendary film, for decades impossible to find. “The Desert of the Tartars,” an adaptation of the 1940 best-seller by Dino Buzzati, with a prestigious cast (Vittorio Gassmann, Jacques Perrin, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Max von Sydow, Fernando Rey and many others) is as powerful as it ever was. It strikes the imagination with its metaphor of the hope everyone harbors somewhere: a long-awaited event that will change everything once it occurs. Our daily drudge, our sometimes senseless-seeming and repetitive tasks and labors and our gradual disappointments will all be left behind once the miracle happens. For happen it must, we cannot lose our waiting-for-Godot faith.

Like Lieutenant Drogo, the main protagonist of this story, the officers long forgotten in this North Frontier outpost while away the years training their field glasses on the desert beyond, never quite sure if the occasional horse and perhaps warrior figure they make out in the distance is a reality or a figment of their imagination. They continue expecting the Tartars, whom they imagine preparing for an onslaught that they will repel, fulfilling their dreams of glory and at last giving meaning and purpose to their melancholy days. In the meantime, they take the men out for field exercises and military maneuvers, they regularly give out new passwords to the watchtower guards, they keep canons and munitions ready, they show up for dinner every night, uniforms perfectly pressed, brass buttons gleaming, boots shining, backs rigid, to sit down with their commander at a beautifully set table.

The “Desert of the Tartars” is a magnificent film, rendered all the more haunting by having been filmed in the superb ancient adobe citadel of Bam in central Iran, completely destroyed by an earthquake in 2003. Restoration goes on but to what extent can it be considered the real thing, once completed? Like the elusive Tartars, it may never become more than what we think we see but never do.