US Civil War soldiers go up against the wilds of Montana in Roberto Minervini’s fiction debut

The Damned

Source: Les Films du Losange

‘The Damned’

Dir/scr: Roberto Minervini. Italy/US/Belgium. 2024. 89mins

The volunteer soldiers sent to patrol the wild border country of western territories in Civil War America are men and boys guided by simple certainties. They love God and they love their country, and they believe that they are in service of both in this bleakly beautiful outpost, far from civilisation. But as the winter sets in and the supplies are depleted, the soldiers start to question their mission and their core beliefs, in this moody, glacially slow-burning period drama from the US-based, Italian-born chronicler of close-knit rural American communities Roberto Minervini.

A bold approach, but one which is only partially successful.

Previously known for his inventive approach to docs, blending factual and fiction filmmaking to potent effect with pictures such as Stop The Pounding Heart and The Other Side (both of which premiered in Cannes), Minervini draws on the techniques of his non-fiction background for this, his first fiction feature. It’s a bold approach, but one which is only partially successful. The unvarnished naturalism and unpolished dialogue – there is nothing here that feels scripted or artificial – comes as close, one imagines, to the realities of military life in 1862 America as it is possible to get.

But the realities of military life, or specifically life on a mission as far-flung and uncertain as this one, involve long periods of sitting around aimlessly or squinting at the horizon. At times the film feels almost subversive in its resolute lack of dramatic tension. And yet, as a melancholy mood piece, there’s a haunting quality to this handsomely filmed account of the slow attrition of faith, hope and purpose. Further festival exposure seems likely, but the film might struggle in a theatrical setting.

The Damned opens with a striking locked shot of wolves devouring a deer, against the backdrop of a wan winter sky – the Montana landscape adds visual drama, even when there’s nothing else happening on screen. It’s an evocative piece of symbolic imagery. Coupled with a soundscape that emphasises and foregrounds the natural world, the wolves hint that, for all the quoting of scripture and the lofty talk of duty, most of the men are driven by that most basic of animal instincts: survival.

It’s this instinct that prompts one soldier, although one of the handiest with a firearm, to curl himself into a foetal position behind a convenient tussock rather than engage in an unexpected skirmish with an unseen enemy. It proves to be a smart decision: he survives, but several of his comrades are felled in the exchange. This brief, savage burst of actual combat is a turning point for the men, who realise that to stay in their camp as the winter draws in is untenable. One of the older soldiers (Tim Carlson) – a God-fearing man whose two teenage sons (Noah Carlson, Judah Carlson) joined up alongside him – volunteers to stay at the camp and tend to the injured and the dying. The others push on towards a mountain pass and the vain hope of salvation.

The cast is composed of performers who may have some experience in front of a camera – Tim, Noah and Judah Carlson are members of the goat-farming Christian family that was the focus of Stop The Pounding Heart – but who are not trained actors. This, together with the decision not to name any of the characters, means that we don’t get a particularly defined sense of individual personalities and identities, beyond each individual’s relationship with God, family and country. This is presumably deliberate – extreme hardship has a way of stripping away all but the essentials of a man. The soldiers on this exposed hillside might as well be variations of the same person: united by grime-encrusted fingernails, stringy beards, gnawing hunger and, as slow and relentless as frostbite, a growing sense of doubt.

Production companies: Okta Film, Pulpa Film, Rai Films

International sales: Les Filmes Du Losange

Producers: Paolo Benzi, Denise Ping Lee, Roberto Minervini, Paolo Del Brocco

Cinematography: Carlos Alfonso Corral

Editing: Marie-Hélène Dozo

Music: Carlos Alfonso Corral

Main cast: Jeremiah Knupp, René W. Solomon, Cuyler Ballenger, Noah Carlson, Judah Carlson, Tim Carlson