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CANNES 2024 Un Certain Regard

Review: The Damned

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- CANNES 2024: Roberto Minervini makes the leap from documentaries to historical fiction with a film set in the American War of Secession, referencing the modern day

Review: The Damned

Coincidentally, in cinemas all around the world, Alex Garland’s Civil War is circulating, a movie positing a hypothetical scenario where a second civil war breaks out in modern-day America, at the very time when Italian documentary-maker Roberto Minervini is presenting his first work of fiction, The Damned [+see also:
trailer
film profile
]
, set during the American War of Secession, in a premiere within the Un Certain Regard section of the 77th Cannes Film Festival. The film is also hitting Italian cinemas, courtesy of Lucky Red, from Thursday 16 May.

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The film opens in the winter of 1862, in the throes of war. A small company of Union army volunteers is sent to garrison the unexplored lands of the West. It’s a story which unfolds gently, between silent marches through snowy landscapes and lengthy periods of time spent waiting, like a western-style version of The Desert of the Tartars, during which young soldiers and officers focus on maintaining their weapons, taking care of their horses, guarding the perimeter of their camp, praying and playing baseball. The film’s protagonists emerge over time, in the form of three incredibly young brothers and their father, all of whom are very religious and convinced that they’re fighting for a just cause, the officer being the most reflective and determined of them all (the actors in question are Noah, Judah and Tim Carlson alongside Jeremiah Knupp, René W. Solomon and Cuyler Ballenger). After a skirmish with southern soldiers, one of them goes off ahead to join forces with the defeated northern soldiers in Virginia. It’s interesting how the secessionists are depicted as far-off, threatening, unidentifiable silhouettes in the battle scenes (one of the final sequences is particularly beautiful), just like the Indians were in classic western movies.

In rare moments of conversation while seated around the fire, the soldiers express the film’s philosophy. For some, fighting those who want to reduce other humans to slavery simply equates to being on the right side and fighting in God’s name. For others, killing your own brothers is all a question of survival, regardless of the senselessness of war. It’s clear that Minervini’s screenplay - which uses a period film to tackle a foundational part of American history - looks for references with modern times and connections with the reality of the USA and elsewhere. We’re more than likely “the damned” referred to by the title, forced as we are to fight or watch others fighting their brothers.

The director based for many years in the USA has probed the various facets of society on the new continent as a documentary-maker, through movies ranging from his “Texan trilogy” to Louisiana (The Other Side) [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Roberto Minervini
film profile
]
, which revolves around people addicted to drugs, and What You Gonna Do When the World’s On Fire? [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Roberto Minervini
film profile
]
, which homes in on racism. These works tread the line between documentary and fiction, and the leap he’s making with The Damned isn’t particularly traumatic. Minervini retains his usual style, paying great attention to the aesthetic composition of each image (even though his long-time director of photography has been replaced here by Carlos Alfonso Corral) by using short lenses and a close-up focus. The most logical reference for this minimalism seems to be the poetic cinematography of independent filmmaker Kelly Reichardt, who adopts a slow pace to explore rural communities and characters on the fringes of society. For Reichardt, who tackled the western genre with the wonderful Meek's Cutoff and again with First Cow, “essentially, a film is a series of revelations. I’m not interested in summing everything up. I put it all out there".

The Damned is produced by Okta Film (Italy) and Pulpa Film (Italy/USA) together with RAI Cinema, in co-production with Michigan Films and BeTV (Belgium), and Stregonia (Italy). International distribution falls to French firm Les Films du Losange.

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(Translated from Italian)

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