A visually stunning anti-war drama with great performances and a sheer number of memorable anti-war messages.
An Italian unit is sent into combat on the Russian Front, starting out on the winning side until finally being wiped out during a harsh winter retreat.
There is no plot; the film is a series of encounters, each with a strong anti-war slant – almost of each of which will seriously leave you shocked. A face-to-face encounter between a Russian and Italian infantryman in the middle of a snowy field which ends in devastation; an ironic twist of fate involving an aristocratic Italian doctor (Peter Falk) and a Russian prisoner (Yuri Nazarov); the constant background image of turmoil and civilian living conditions as armies march back and forth, burning villages and ruining life for those who have no say in war; a drawn-out firing squad sequence; a soldier who treks to reach home and wanders into the middle of the final battle; and the final retreat, in which the Italians are pursued by the Russians and cannot stop their overloaded vehicles for the wounded, often having to run them over at full speed rather than stop and thus be captured. Each episode is set of itself. There are no main characters, besides the Colonel (Andrea Checchi) who tells of the war in a letter to his wife. I can’t develop these episodes very much because each one ends surprisingly and I don’t want to spoil the film for anyone.
De Santis paints a constant picture of hopelessness. Even Russian in the spring looks harsh, and even more so in the winter. The actors look as though they are really freezing the conditions are deplorable. The mud, the hand to hand fighting, the bombed out towns in the background – it’s all a grim, dirty and very honest portrait of what war is like for the guys up front in the trenches. Armando Travajoli’s haunting score adds a sharp edge to an already depressingly sharp knife: bound to slice into your heart and move you in one way. In that, the film makes a great companion piece to The Battle of El Alamein. Both films tell true stories of Italian grunts fighting in awful conditions against unbeatable odds. On their own, defied even by their German allies, the Italians have only their own survival and personal pride to fight for. Underfed, under-equipped and under strength, they never gave up until it was ultimately impossible to keep on fighting.
Attack and Retreat shows us what war is like from the front-line soldiers’ point of view perfectly. Front lines troops always live in grim, dirty conditions without any luxury at all, and civilians in the combat area always get caught up in circumstances beyond their control. Then, the front shifts, and civilians are left to fend for themselves while soldiers leave their dead in the field and move on to fight in deplorable conditions elsewhere. And the cycle repeats itself. You attack, and you retreat. That’s all war is. Like it or not, the cycle will be repeated eventually no matter who wins. In a perfect world, everyone would realize this and stop fighting. But this isn’t a perfect world and Attack and Retreat is a brutal, bitter reminder of this sad fact. Honestly, I believe it’s the finest anti-war film I’ve ever come across and recommend it whole-heartedly. —Angelfire.com
Giuseppe De Santis (11 February 1917 – 16 May 1997) was an Italian film director. One of the most idealistic neorealist filmmakers of the 1940s and 1950s, he wrote and directed films punctuated by ardent cries for social reform.
He was the brother of Italian cinematographer Pasqualino De Santis. His wife is Gordana Miletic, actress (former ballet dancer) from the former Yugoslavia.
De Santis was born in Fondi, Lazio. He was a member of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and fought with the anti-German Resistance in Rome during World War II.
He was first a student of philosophy and literature before entering Rome’s Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia. While working as a journalist for Cinema magazine, De Santis became, under the influence of Cesare Zavattini, a major proponent of the early neorealist filmmakers who were trying to make films that mirrored the simple and tragic realities of proletarian life using location shooting and nonprofessional actors. read more