The Italians dominated world cinema from the late '40s through the early '70s because they boasted an army of masters working high and low, pioneering genres like neo-realism, giallo, spaghetti Westerns, and a peculiarly Italian brand of existential pageantry. With so many canonical films and internationally famous filmmakers, it's no wonder a director as great as Valerio Zurlini could fall through the cracks. The eight feature films he made over a 20-year career were beholden to no particular style, but were highly individualized history plays, featuring idealists dwelling on the fringe of monumental moments.
The DVD specialty house NoShame has been doing its part to resuscitate Zurlini's reputation, most recently with the inaptly titled "The Valerio Zurlini Box Set," a two-disc collection containing 1959's Violent Summer and 1961's Girl With A Suitcase. The former stars Jean-Louis Trintignant as an idle rich kid wooing war-widow Eleonora Rossi Drago in the summer of '43, just prior to the civil war between fascists and anti-fascists, while the latter has Jacques Perrin as another idle rich kid infatuated with one of his older brother's recent conquests, a flighty would-be actress played by Claudia Cardinale. Zurlini lets the melodrama get a little overheated in Violent Summer, but he peppers the film with unforgettable images, from kinetic footage of kids eating spaghetti and drinking wine to a hair-raising shot of happy beachgoers getting buzzed by a low-flying fighter plane. Girl With A Suitcase is far more sure-footed, capturing that particularly melancholy mood teenagers suffer when they realize they have no idea how to get what they want.
Earlier this year, NoShame touched off the Zurlini DVD revival with the director's final film, the 1976 military mood piece The Desert Of The Tartars, about a remote outpost charged with guarding nothing from an imminent attack by no one. Perrin stars again as an aristocratic novice officer who finds that the fort has gone to seed and officers have been reduced to bickering over petty protocols and feigning potential threats. The Desert Of The Tartars holds to a deliberate pace and somewhat abstract expression, but like Violent Summer and Girl With A Suitcase, it moves fleetly from episode to episode, ending scenes abruptly once they get where they need to go. All three films are remarkably mature, both in their storytelling and in their understanding of how people go about the lifelong business of making themselves miserable.
Key features: Extensive interviews with Zurlini collaborators on each disc.