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Directed by Valerio Zurlini from a script by Leonardo Benvenuti and Piero De Bernadi based on a novel by Ugo Pirro, 1965's Le Soldatesse (also known as The Camp Followers) takes place just as the Second World War has begun to ravage Europe, specifically Italy. Here, a dozen Athenian women who live in poverty and have no other opportunities or means of supporting themselves, climb into a truck that is to deliver them to various locations in Greek and Albania where they'll be employed at brothels set up to take care of the needs of the Italian soldiers stationed in the areas.
A young Italian officer, Lieutenant Gaetano Martino (Tomas Milian), answers to Colonel Gambardelli (Guido Alberti) but wants nothing more than to get out of Athens. Gambardelli assigns him to supervise the transportation of the twelve women and to make sure that they are dropped off at the proper locations. Less than enthused by this concept, Martino at least sees this as a way to get back to Italy and soon enouguh, he, along with Sergeant Castiglioni (Mario Adorf) and Major Alessi (Aleksandar Gavric) make the trek with the woman.
Before long, tensions rise among the officers and among the passengers themselves. Elenitza (Anna Karina) gives them attitude as does Toula (Lea Massari) while Eftikia (Marie Laforêt) is clearly in a less than proper mental state. Ebe Bartolini (Valeria Moriconi) misses the child she's left behind and Aspasia (Milena Dravic) just wants all of this to end. Part of the way into the trip, Alessi takes Toula away from the rest to exploit his rank while Eftikia's breakdown soon proves to be as physical as it is mental, though it's clear that she and Martino are developing feelings for each other. Things get more complicated for all involved when resistance fighters become active in the area, putting everyone's lives at risk.
As much a road movie as it is a war film, Le Soldatesse is a very well-made picture, one that would seem to deserve to be better known than it is (did it have a domestic home video release before this Blu-ray from Raro? It doesn't look like it). Zurlini, of course, gets a lot of credit here. He paces the two hour film quite effectively, building some pretty decent tension in a few key scenes but smart enough to ensure that we get quite a bit of character development here, enough at least so that we care about what happens to the main players. The production values are really strong here. The black and white cinematography was handled by Tonino Delli Colli, who only a short time after this picture was made would serve as the director of photography on The Good, The Bad And The Ugly for Sergio Leone. This movie doesn't approach that later film's epic, grandiose scale, but it doesn't need to, it still looks fantastic. The score is also pretty solid, if sometimes a little repetitive.
A big draw here, however, has to be the cast. Top-billed Anna Karina doesn't really get any more screen time than most of the other actresses in the picture, but she's very good here and as beautiful and as charming as she's ever been. It's interesting to see her in what would seem to be the first film she made without Jean-Luc Godard, as this is a very different type of movie than the kind that she was starring in for him during this era. Valeria Moriconi, Lea Massari and Marie Laforêt are all just as good. A young Tomas Milian shows early in his career that he had leading man qualities. While he's go on to make a name for himself playing bastards and criminal types in a lot of spaghetti westerns and Italian cop movies in the later part of the sixties and into the seventies, he is, for all intents and purposes, the good guy in this movie and he plays the part well. Mario Adorf plays his character as the brash and crass type that he was always so good at bringing to life on screen while Aleksandar Gavric is also very good in his role as the egotistical Major.
Raro brings Le Soldatesse to region free Blu-ray on a 25GB disc with the ninety-four minute feature taking up just under 37.6GBs of space on the 50GB disc and framed at 1.85.1 widescreen. The image would probably look fantastic if it hadn't been hit with some moderate noise reduction. There's no visible grain here and skin has a waxy look throughout. Otherwise, the contrast looks good and the image is free of pretty much any print damage at all. Detail is harmed by the noise reduction, however, which is a shame as the elements used for the transfer do appear to have been in very nice shape.
The only audio option on the disc is a 24-bit Italian language DTS-HD 2.0 Mono track. Optional subtitles are offered up in English only. The mix sounds good, the score in particular has some good presence to it. The gun shots and scenes of war and combat don't always sound as powerful as maybe they could have, at least the dialogue is clean and easy to follow and the mix is properly balanced throughout.
The only extra on the disc is a nine minute featurette hosted by Marco Muller who provides some interesting social context for the feature and some details on Valerio Zurlini's life and career as well as some basic trivia about the making of the movie.
Le Soldatesse is a unique and engaging mix of moving drama, black comedy and social commentary made all the better thanks to the efforts of an excellent ensemble cast and a talented director. Raro's Blu-ray could have looked more like film than it does and it's surprisingly light on extras, but the movie is good enough to warrant a recommendation regardless.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.