Every winter, every year, I succumb to the seasonal blues, and I announce that I've never felt so miserable in my life before. I exploit every angle of Christmas and New Year for mood enhancement (food, glitter, parties). In January, there are rituals to keep up: waving farewell to the old and welcoming the new. Then come February and March, and what to do? It's not quite the jubilant spring-burst of April and May, but life and life's duties are in full swing. There's enough daylight to induce guilt about staying in, but really, it's freezing out there.
This year I hatched an escape plan. I booked myself in to a University of Edinburgh short course on Italian cinema, to take me from January to April. As a fully paid-up Italophile, I've struggled to learn Italian, and strived to perfect my gnocchi, and so I was keen to indulge in some sun-splashed cinema. It was a cop-out from verb tenses, a fantasy holiday on the cheap, and a chance to watch Giuliano Gemma on screen.
Every Monday evening I have made my way to a little screening room tucked away in the back of the Edinburgh Filmhouse. Is there a more exquisite contentment than settling in to the faded red seats of a cinema? (Always red, and a little scuffed, in our collective memory of cinemas.) Is there a more pristine anticipation, than that which is set off by the darkening of the cinema lights? This kind of joy knows no season.
Every Monday evening I was transported far away from dreich Scotland to windy Turin, sunny Rome and icy Milan. Then came the night we watched Valerio Zurlini's masterpiece, 'The Desert of the Tartars' (based on the Dino Buzzati novel, 'The Tartar Steppe').
It is a long film, and one in which nothing really happens. Yet it is mesmerising. The movie was filmed at the abandoned 13th-century Savafid Fort of Bam, in Iran (which no longer exists; it was destroyed by an earthquake in 2003). The soundtrack, strange and severe, was composed by Ennio Morricone. The sky and the desert are two complex pieces of the film, alive with colour. Long films require patience and trust, and this is an easy movie to trust, because the landscape and the music are immediately so rich, so unusual, that the viewer is engulfed.
The sun-baked fort is like a hallucination: austere, enigmatic. It is inhabited by Italian soldiers who have been tasked with manning a desert border in North Africa. The desert was once ruled by the Tartars, legendary warriors who rode on white horses. In Bastiano Fortress, the soldiers keep up a scrupulous training regime. The seniors dress in spotless white uniforms for dinner, and the table is laid with candelabra. A new arrival is treated to a series of elaborate, formal introductions. Every day soldiers man the look-out tower, and every day the desert and the sky remain the same. These soldiers could herald from any era. Timelessness is signalled by their immaculate blue clothes (uniforms, but also costumes), their formulaic language, and their routine execution of tasks. Then the army doctor tells the new arrival that there's an 'illness in the walls'. In the great tradition of every movie ever, things are not all they seem.
The Tartars are the idealised enemies that haunt every soldier's conscience. When a stray white horse is seen cantering across dunes, the soldiers agree that it must have belonged to a Tartar – and therefore, an invasion is imminent. There's an unmistakeable excitement at the idea, but at Bastiano time is elastic: perhaps a few months of useless training exercises pass by, and the men's hair is going grey. Every so often the captain will advise a colleague that they've been promoted – proferring a letter sent from on-high – but no man seems able to take up an opportunity to leave. Practise exercises continue.
There are some rumours that Bastiano has a bad name; that it has a history of raising silly false alarms. The lieutenant colonel is practically absent, silent and hunched, suffering from old war injuries. Other soldiers whisper, enviously, that he is the only one of them that has seen real conflict. When the old man has fits, the doctor holds him down and injects him with morphine.
At this portrait of futility, you may find yourself screaming with frustration – just as the soldiers might, if they had an ounce of rebellion in them. But normalcy has been eradicated at Bastiano. The men make busywork, practise with guns, imagine invasions, get promoted, grow sick and old.
To avoid spoilers I'll leave it at that. When the lights came up, I sat there stunned.
A movie about boredom should, reasonably, send the audience in to a fit of despair. Yet 'Desert of the Tartars' is a hugely enjoyable film. The experience of watching the film is luxurious. Luxury as in rarity (it's a one-off) pleasure (those colours, the soundtrack) and opulence (the exotic empty space, in the landscape, and in the action). The discomfort in the film comes from watching soldiers cultivate problems to distract themselves. They are the embodiment of Pascal's line: 'all of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone'.
Zurlini's film, however, does not rescue the characters from their fate. Instead it inveigles the audience in to joining the inertia. There is no rush to get through the story. Indeed, the story spirals and changes unexpectedly. To really enjoy it, you must give up striving.
Viewing a 1976 film in 2019, the soldiers' profound boredom seemed as exotic as the desert. Puzzling over the movie in the days after the screening, I thought of the wealth of distractions I have at hand. Every skim of an article, tweet or update, is my own busywork. Underneath this constant display of busyness, is, of course, a timeless fear: what are we, if we are not productive? What emptiness lies underneath? The film presents the human urge to create work to fill up emptiness, and alongside that, it presents a restful, reverent depiction of that very emptiness.
The film was revelatory. It helped me to remember my concentration span, and my belief that a story can change how you feel about life. Shortly after, I was in the garden spotting crocuses that had bloomed, and my first thought was to grab my phone and take a picture. No – escape from Bastiano, I lectured myself. No more distractions. I made an effort to stay in the here and now. I looked closely and saw that some of the flowers were already over and being pushed aside by new young blooms. Spring in Scotland is now well underway, and at last, I have seen it.