Saturday, June 22, 2024

“THE DAMNED”

THE STORY – Winter 1862. In the midst of the Civil War, the US Army sends a company of volunteer soldiers to the western territories, with the task of patrolling the unchartered borderlands. As their mission ultimately changes course, the meaning behind their engagement begins to elude them.

THE CAST René W. Solomon, Jeremiah Knupp, Noah Carlson & Tim Carlson

THE TEAMRoberto Minervini (Director/Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 88 Minutes


Even with a brisk runtime of 88 minutes, the first act of Minervini’s American Civil War drama, “The Damned,” may feel as long as the duration of the entire Civil War. Whether that’s a positive or a negative is up to the individual viewer. But it’s an acknowledgment that, perhaps unknowingly, highlights a novel stage of Minervini’s career, as “The Damned” serves as his first narrative feature film after years of documentary work.

Not that the transition is particularly noticeable: like fellow Un Certain Regard participant Boris Lojkine (“The Story of Souleymane”), Minervini retains that reality-based sensibility even when dealing with an ostensibly narrative project (and his documentaries also featured select dramatized moments). In fact, he uses that eye to put his own stamp on a story set during the Civil War, with a group of Union volunteers patrolling the western territories of the United States. It’s a fairly routine assignment, and a somewhat tedious one in the film’s early stages, where the everyday routine is essentially a more mobile version of the events of Dino Buzzati’s “The Tartar Steppe” or J.M. Coetzee’s “Waiting for the Barbarians” (made into a film by Ciro Guerra in 2019), where soldiers spend their days waiting for an enemy that may never show up. Except in this case, the wait for the Confederates could have a different outcome.

Minervini spent a decade living in Texas, which happens to be the starting point of an exploration of rural life in the South that is tackled with unabashed directness. That same directness is at play here, as the camera always remains close to the soldiers, even when the action unfolds slowly and silently. Shot without a script and in chronological order, the movie displays an unorthodox way of creation, where the crew would set up a campsite and allow locals to come and go as they pleased, including them in the project if they wished to participate. As a result, the whole mood of the piece is very lived-in, as though the director had landed in an actual Civil War location and decided to follow the soldiers. While some dramatic shenanigans do enter the picture, they never feel like contrivances, just the natural progression of an unplanned storyline.

Of course, such an approach is an acquired taste, and the first half hour, in particular, might test the patience of viewers who are not accustomed to Minervini’s work or simply expecting a more conventional depiction of the time period. But as the story progresses, it’s easy to immerse oneself in the harsher, sometimes painfully dull, realities of war. So dull that it might just, as the title suggests, be a specific variation on the Circles of Hell, as the titular Damned keeps walking almost aimlessly while the audience watches with a mixture of bewilderment and increasingly heightened interest.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - Minervini’s approach to the subject brings a freshness to proceedings as the story unfolds in an unexpected manner.

THE BAD - The deliberately languid pace can turn out to be an endurance test for more impatient viewers, especially during the first half hour.

THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - None

THE FINAL SCORE - 7/10

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>Minervini’s approach to the subject brings a freshness to proceedings as the story unfolds in an unexpected manner.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>The deliberately languid pace can turn out to be an endurance test for more impatient viewers, especially during the first half hour.<br><br> <b>THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - </b>None<br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>7/10<br><br>"THE DAMNED"