Time To Kill

Lawrence Russell

Time To Kill (1991) dir. Guiliano Montaldo writ. Scarpelli, Virzi, Montaldo (adapted from the novel Short Cut (1948) by Ennio Flaiano) cine. Blasco Giurato music Ennio Morricone star. Nicolas Cage (Lieu. Enrico Sylvestre), Ricky Tognazi, Patrice Flora Praxo, Gianlucca Favilla, Georges Claisse, Robert Liensol, Giancarlo Giannini

Lieu. Enrico Sylvestre (Cage) resting on his cot, recovering from a bad tooth ache. A large moth buzzes the lamp.

Enrico: Jesus Christ... what a nightmare!

Narrator: ...the landscape out here is indifferent, it's got nothing to do with us, doesn't even know we exist. This dream of Africa -- what was it? A huge space to fill with our dreams of grandeur... and what did we fill? Nothing. If anything, it's Africa that's filled almost 100 pages of my diary.

Set against the background of the Italian-Abyssian war of the mid thirties, this largely ignored film is one of the clear masterpieces to emerge in the nineties. Perhaps the setting and politics are too dated, or the frame narrative with its shifting P.O.Vs and symbo-allegorical story-line is too complex for wide appeal. Nevertheless, it's the literary complexity within an authentic setting that give depth and meaning to this story far beyond the usual cryptic fare of the action/grunt genre of film making.

Cage plays a young officer with a toothache as inconvenient and real as the Italian involvement in Africa. Disregarding his roommate's warning (a junior officer who is the authorial "I" behind the diary that frames the narrative) (Flaiano, who wrote the novel, is well-known for his writing collaborations with Fellini ie. La Strada), he leaves camp at dawn to find a dentist at another army base. His truck crashes, so he decides to walk the rest of the way. He passes through a construction site where a mysterious young Italian directs him into a beautiful valley, the "short cut" from which Flaiano's novel is named.

The short-cut takes him through a false Eden, a tropical landscape of scattered boulders, giant cacti, saw grass and ubiquitous vines. First thing on the path is a decomposing horse, second a lizard which startles Enrico into drawing his pistol. His directions tell him to look for a lake, but he finds a secluded pool fed by a waterfall instead... and the beautiful Christian native girl, Mariam.

Enrico calls to her, asks directions. He throws her a bar of soap. The sexual tension is as immediate as is its fulfillment. Rape and submission, love and contrition. The act is ambiguous, yet undeniable. This is a riveting scene, devoid of pornography or shame, an interracial bonding where the metaphor goes beyond politics and religion into the ill-understood mechanisms of Nature and existence.

When they finish making love, he gives her a Bible and his watch (which has stopped -- as if he has left Time, entered myth). When he hoists his backpack and tries to leave, she runs after him, implores him to stay. As dusk descends, they retreat to a cave where the clean fractures of the stacked rocks form a prehistoric vault of dim petroglyphs and geologic codes. They lie down on the sand but the eerie cries of a marauding hyena awaken the uneasy Enrico. He draws his pistol, tries to shoot it but only succeeds in mortally wounding Mariam in the stomach with a ricochetting bullet.

She dies and he hides her body in a cleft in the rocks. As he leaves, he sees some pilgrims in white approach the waterfall. He doesn't know it at the time, but they are Christians, and their leader is Johannes, Mariam's father....

This Eden-sequence forms the second "frame" and his "confession" to "Flaiano", his roommate.

Did he dream it, or was it real? Later, on a hunt for the rebels who overran and killed the workers at the bridge construction site (including the mysterious young man who told Enrico about the short cut), it becomes clear that it was no dream. Bodies of the pilgrims are scattered in the grass, casualties of the cultural "bridge" that linked them to the rebels and the Italians. There's an uncanny feeling of reliving a nightmare, a deja vu of events experienced but somehow forgotten.

As luck would have it, Enrico's toothache is replaced by a hand wound, a stigmata from the truck crash... or his careless shooting in the cave.

He receives his furlough back to Italy, celebrates with the black marketeer Major, "Little Ceasar", who takes him and "Flaiano" to visit three women in white who turn out to be lepers. Ceasar, enjoying his joke, says: "Stick no dick in a white turban -- another maxim." But Enrico is filled with apprehension -- Mariam was dressed in white, was she also a leper? Is his hand wound a sign of contamination?

This vision of the Italo-Ethiopian world is like the New Testament, the Ethopian Christians overwhelming these new Romans with their native purity. The irony is typical of the movement of cultures and history.

Enrico goes to the coast but before boarding his ship, he visits an army doctor in his tent clinic on the beach.

Enrico: I have in mind a novel about a man who comes to Africa, gets infected by a mysterious disease. Africa has been described as the land that heals but instead all he finds is death... (the doctor laughs, appreciating the irony) I was thinking you could give me some suggestions for this character's disease... something like leprosy.

Doctor: Why not?

Enrico: In my opinion, the character might get it from sleeping in the bed of a native man. Could something like that happen?

Doctor: Why doesn't he simply go to bed with a native woman? But you realize it takes 10 to 20 years for leprosy to show up in the human body. Of course there are recorded cases where it has showed up rapidly, sometimes in a matter of days....

Now Enrico is truly unnerved. As he hands him a small book on "Hanson's Disease" the doctor says, "The best novels are always a bit subversive." When the doctor lifts the phone to call another clinic, Enrico draws his pistol, shoots the phone, fearing betrayal (lepers are quarantined). He flees, tries unsuccessfully to board the ship without his discharge papers stamped, and then, as fate will have it, runs into the Major who is dropping off a load of stolen army supplies. They get drunk, visit a brothel, start back for camp... Ennio decides to steal the Major's profits.

In the last great scene, the two men have it out on a dirt road as a column of rebels pass into the valley below. Their parting -- in which the robber is robbed -- essentially dramatizes the two views of Italians about their war. "You're insane," roars the Major. "You're anti-fascist... you're gonna die here!" But it's the Major who dies, unable to defend himself against the rebels because Enrico has removed the bullets from his gun.

Delirious, Enrico stumbles into Mariam's village, finds Johannes alone among the dead. The old man tends him in Mariam's hut but Enrico can only recover after he confesses. Johannes' first instinct is to kill the Italian, but his Christian discipline triumphs. In a touching scene of reconciliation, father and "son" return to the cave, build a wooden altar and consecrate her grave.

The film concludes with the Italian withdrawal, the color drained to newsreel black and white. The diarist (the Flaiano alter-ego) encounters Enrico for the last time on board a troop ship. His hand has healed, Africa is behind him, his wife awaits his return.

Narrator: For years I could smell that hair lotion he used... it was sweet and cloying, like flowers in a cemetery... we all thought the killing time was over, we were all going to change our swords into tractors, get back to raising our families, but it didn't turn out that way.

Obtuse, certainly; bordering on the sentimental, certainly. But the depth of characterization within the symbolist narrative, excellent acting and atmospheric soundtrack make Montaldo's film a masterpiece despite the awkward framing of past and present Time.

© LR 94/95


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