There have been many films about WWII. Valerio Zurlini’s Le Soldatesse (also known as The Camp Followers) is a film about hunger and what it means to be hungry – how decisions get taken out of your hands and choices become simple. Whatever it takes to get food.
In the film, the context for this hunger is set during the opening text, which describes Greece fighting back against Italian occupation and being forced to surrender after the loss of many lives (the word “massacre” is used).
It’s with this information that the film then introduces its largely female cast, who are waiting to be transported to military brothels. First, though, they’re each given three days’ worth of food, the importance of which is now doubly understood. Food is always important, but prostitution is a way to eat. That’s all there is to it (or at least that’s the reality these women are living and which Le Soldatesse lays out).
Recently I reviewed So Proudly We Hail, an American war film which also featured a largely female cast, but which came out while the war was still ongoing (which means it was never going to be about American soldiers visiting prostitutes). It also came out during the Hays Code and when patriotic sentiment was at an all-time high.
Le Soldatesse was released in 1965 and has a very European sensibility. War is ugly and how the women are treated by the vast majority of the soldiers is ugly. Officially the women are referred to as auxiliaries of the army, which makes it all sound above board, but as Lieutenant Martino (Tomas Milian, of Spaghetti Western fame) starts to drop them off at different brothels the truth of the situation comes out. From men inspecting the women before making their choices, to Martino’s fellow male passengers (Aleksandar Gavrić and Mario Adorf) showing their true colors as they start to realize they might be in danger – that transporting women makes them a target – Leonardo Benvenuti and Piero De Bernardi’s screenplay strips these characters down, revealing their true selves.
By casting familiar, international faces to play the different prostitutes (including French actress, Anna Karina), Le Soldatesse immediately invites sympathy for them. Zurlini doesn’t make their experiences homogeneous either. Each of the women has a name and is treated like an individual. Each of them is coping with their situation differently. While Elenitza (Karina) is quicker to laugh and smile, laughing is impossible for Eftikia (Marie Laforêt). Toula (Lea Massari) is trying to convince her younger sister (Rossana Di Rocco) not to stowaway on the truck, but the truck means food.
Originally Raro and Kino Lorber’s Blu-Ray was supposed to come with a commentary by Danielle Hipkins (Professor of Italian Studies and Film at the University of Exeter). It’s a shame that supplement was dropped. There’s still an introduction by Marco Müller (professor at the Shanghai Film Academy and former director of the Venice and Rome film festivals) but it really only scratches the surface in terms of discussing Zurlini’s filmography and drawing a comparison to the work of Pier Paolo Pasolini.
Le Soldatesse is available on Blu-Ray now from Kino Lorber and Raro.