Dir: Enzo Monteleone. Italy. 2002. 123mins.

At last, Italy too has its Saving Private Ryan (minus some of Spielberg's special effects) or it's The Thin Red Line (minus some of Malick's cosmic vision) . El Alamein: The Line Of Fire is the first Italian film to respect the new American war-movie orthodoxy: carefully documented realism (the director interviewed dozens of veterans, enough to make The Children Of El Alamein, a spin-off documentary that was presented at this year's Venice festival), and a sensitive focus on the bitterness, boredom and confusion, as well as the small acts of heroism, of active military service. In Italy, though, the film has not reached the wider audience it deserves. After four weeks it has taken $844,000 and is now playing on 47 screens. Overseas, it may be held back by its refusal to pander to the Captain Corelli stereotypes, but in territories where El Alamein still has some resonance, it should have curiosity value as an unrhetorical view from the losing side.

Monteleone could not have found a better subject for a gritty, unglamorous war movie than the sticking-point that unravelled the Italo-German front in North Africa in 1942. After routing Allied forces at Tobruk, using captured British vehicles to chase the 8th Army deep into Egypt, the joint Italo-German army under Rommel came to a halt at El Alamein, 60 miles west of Alexandria. And here, overstretched and unable to break through, they dug in for four long months while the British mustered their forces for a counter-attack.

Monteleone's film opens as this uneasy stand-off is about to come to an end, homing in on an Italian garrison abandoned by its German allies and short on food, water, petrol and ammunition. Serra (Paolo Briguglia), a fresh-faced university volunteer, is seconded to the Piave division, dug into desert trenches against the Allied aerial bombardment. It is a baptism by fire: after a few minutes, Serra sees the soldier assigned to him as a guide take a direct hit, leaving only an ear behind.

The beautiful but inhospitable landscape is rendered by lingering panoramic shots and by cinematographer Daniele Nannuzzi's monochrome colour palette, all buffs and beiges except where the blood soaks through. Director Monteleone scripted most of Gabriele Salvatores' early films, including Oscar-winning Mediterraneo (1991), set within a forgotten Italian WWII Greek island garrison. But El Alamein is a more mature exercise, playing down the regional stereotypes and taking an altogether less complacent view of Italy's wartime schizophrenia. Shot on a decidely un-Spielbergian $9.9m budget, it nevertheless does a decent job of the key battle scene, thanks to some tight editing by Cecilia Zanuso.

The soundtrack by electro-nomads Pivo and Aldo de Scalzi morphs from Enya-like synthesizer lilts to haunting Moorish chants, mostly to good effect. At two hours, the film is overlong, dragging especially in the last half-hour, as ragged retreat follows the emotional catharsis of battle. But strong dialogue, dramatic sinew and convincing performances by leads Briguglia and Pier Francesco Favino save this bitter male bonding movie, in which there is never the slightest scent (not even in flashback) of a woman.

Prod co: Cattleya, Telepiu
Co prod/It dist:
Int'l sales:
Riccado Tozzi, Giovanni Stabilini, Marco Chimenz
Daniele Nannuzzi
Prod des:
Ettore Guerrieri
Cecilia Zanuso
Pivo and Aldo de Scalzi
Main cast:
Paolo Briguglia, Pier Francesco Favino, Emilio Solfrizzi, Thomas Trabacchi, Luciano Scarpa, Piero Maggiò, Silvio Orlando