Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A small movie miracle opens: Ari Taub's LAST LETTERS FROM MONTE ROSA -- plus a short Q&A with the filmmaker


Could there be, at this late date, anything left to say about World War II, specifically about the Germans, Italians and Americans who fought in the mountains of northern Italy as the war came to a close? On the basis of two new films -- The Man Who Will Come, which recently won Italy's Best Picture award and premiered during the recent FSLC's Open Roads, and now a small, independent American movie, LAST LETTERS FROM MONTE ROSA directed by Ari Taub (shown just below) and co-written by Nick Day and Caio Ribeiro (who doubled as cinematographer) -- there's plenty left to say.  And, boy, it this worth hearing (and seeing). Regarding Mr. Taub's new film, I believe that Sam Fuller would approve mightily.

Last Letters from Monte Rosa begins with the explanation that a long-buried mailbag of letters written by Italians and Germans toward the end of WWII was discovered.  (More about this satchel in the Q&A that follows.) Instead of the documentary we might expect from this beginning, we're thrust into narrative mode, in the north of Italy, jostling amongst a German platoon of soldiers that awaits the arrival of its Italian counterpart. In the surrounding forest are the Italian partisans, as well as a few Americans, one of whom visits a heavy-set Italian sleazebag who appears to be a some sort of crime boss, complete with his own set of goons, to finalize the sale of some cases of expensive black-market French wine.

It's an incendiary situation, what with the American military further encroaching on Italian turf, and the German and Italian soldiers at each other's throats.  Their respective commanders fare a bit better, however. Class will out, I guess.  The first thing you may notice is the terrifically real "look" of the film: From the costumes to the various equipment that the soldiers must use, from the men's faces to their anything-but-buff bodies, everything seems remarkably "as it was."  

The stories that Taub and his writer show us are small but telling, with moment after moment written and acted with quiet beauty and strength.  Best of all, I think, is that, by the end of this film, you'll have trouble finding any villains. Collectively, of course, you can pin the tail on the German donkey, or on the Il Duce's military.  But individually, even with plenty of bad behavior across the boards, the humanity of each of these men shines through -- and in no sappy manner. Taub, his writers and his actors, make you mourn the death of the individual Germans, even as you detest their cause.  As for the Italians, the difference between the partisans and those who "fought for their country" has seldom seemed less important, even as you know that it was, of course, all-important.

Last Letters is full of wonderful incident: that black-market wine deal (shown below); a conversation (above) between the Italian commander and his right-hand man in which the former wonders if Hitler is right: Are the Germans a superior people?   Then there's a deer that manages to first divide the soldiers -- German from Italian -- before bringing them together, and another scene of a German instructing the Italians on how to plant a land mine.  Best of all, perhaps, is an extremely suspenseful few moments between the Italian partisans and the Italian military.

Taub, who has built his way up to this film via earlier ones -- shorts and full-length -- shows surprising skill as a moviemaker.  He draws excellent performances from his cast members, recruited from Ger-
many & Italy who came to America to film (upstate New York, Mas-
sachusetts and Pennsylvania all stand in for Northern Italy).  Even the director's use of slow-motion is judicious; he manages to make that old cliché death seem somehow new -- and horribly unfair.

Taub's work is such a small movie, but it's one that deserves some real acclaim.  The director never bites off more than he can chew, yet he challenges us just the same.  Last Letters from Monte Rosa opens this Friday for a week's run at New York's newest home for independent cinema in Brooklyn: IndieScreen. You can find dates and screening time here.

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Once TrustMovies had seen the film, he turned to the press kit for further information. What a gold mine it proved, making him even more impressed with Mr. Taub, his writers and his cast of wonderful actors, who have given up so much to be able to make this fine film.

First of all, the movie was shot almost entirely here in the U.S., with the actors imported from Europe.  The verisimilitude is certainly achieved.  Performances are terrific, right down the line.  Indoor photography was shot on sets created in studios in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, hence the entirely appropriate venue in which the film is opening.  Most bizarre, I guess, is the fact that here is a piece of American independent cinema that is actually a low-budget WWII combat drama.

We catch director Ari Taub for a 30-minute phone call during which he fills us in with answers to a few on extra questions that the press kit did not address. In the following TrustMovies' question are in boldface, white Taub's answers are in standard type.

Were there actually that batch of letters mentioned at the beginning of the film? Can you give us some background on that?

Yes. everybody always wants to know about those letters! The satchel of letters does exist. Letters were recovered in Northern Italy maybe 10-14 years ago. A lot of them were rotted and only bits and pieces could be read. We only read a fragment from one letter --

Was that the letter from the German commander to his wife that we hear at the end?

Yes: the one that was read at the end. To prepare for this film, we read that fragment and also Last Letters from Stalingrad, a wonderful book written by soldiers who perished during the Battle of Stalingrad in Russia.  And so, from a single fragment, rather like one bone from a dinosaur, we created the whole piece.

According to the IMDB, you've made other films: shorts and full-length, and a number of these were war films.

Yes, I have made a number war films. Some of my war films, in fact, are earlier versions of this movie. The Fallen tells the story from the American viewpoint. This one is my favorite, though, because it seems unique. I really worked hard to get inside the hearts and minds of how men would act during this time.

After this initial week's run at IndieScreen, where might your film go?

We hope elsewhere around the country, of course, but we don’t have a big war chest for getting the movie out there.

What was the total cost of making  this film, start to finish?
The cost all told was $350,000, includsive of everything.  Our production budget was $210,000 and then of course there was post production.

And how long, total, did it take to film?

It took seven years to complete this movies.

Wow.

It's unbelievable, the amount of time and life that went into this work. Mostly because we did not have the money. There was a time that we couldn't even continue shooting for two years because we had no money.

Your cast really is wonderful.  So real.  Did they all come from abroad?

No: the guy who played the local gangster (Rossini, shown below), sort of the small town bully, he is a friend of mine (Carmine Raspaolo) who lives right here in Brooklyn. He had wanted to play one of the soldiers, but I had to tell him he just weighed too much. But we could -- and did -- cast him as that gangster.

How old are you now, Ari?

I’m 44 years old.

Is there anything else you'd like to say, since I have you for this quick interview?

Maybe I should say why I originally wanted to even make this movie.

Yes, good idea.

I wanted to tell a story that involved the cooperation between German and Italian men during WWII because I found these people to be so different from each other. I could not imagine how they could get along. And when I researched, I found copious amounts of material that corroborated the fact that they did not get along.

And yet, you make it so they do try to get along.

Yes. Some of my best friends are both German and Italian. So I don’t want people to think that I don't like either group!

Nobody's gonna think that.  Your movie is too full of understanding and appreciation for humanity -- of whatever country or group.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

The more I read about the making of
Ari Taub's "Last Letters From Monte Rosa" the MORE I admire the
result of, indeed..."A small movie
miracle."...it's a beauty in every
way!
Miss Rochelle

James van Maanen, said...

Thanks, Ms Rochelle, aka Anonymous. I am a little bit perplexed over the Friday NY Times review of the film, which seemed to review Taub's earlier movie THE FALLEN as much as this latest endeavor. As soon as I can come up for air, I want to take a look at The Fallen to see if there is anything to Mr Hale's complaints. Still, judged on its own, and with the understanding that I have not seen any other of Taub's films, Last Letters from Monte Rosa still seems to me to be a wonderful little movie.