Credit: Les Films du Losange
by Luke Gorham Featured Film

The Damned — Robert Minervini [Cannes ’24 Review]

May 30, 2024

Across five feature films to date, most of which exist within a liminal space located between fiction and documentary narrative, demarcated with blurred lines, Roberto Minervini has engendered a number of comparisons. Sean Baker comes to mind if one is to look primarily at the subjects and subject matter that seem to preoccupy the Italian director’s mind, while Carlos Reygadas feels very much alive in Minervini’s ability to capture a place and a people divorced from our notions of modern living. The director’s latest, The Damned, which concerns a group of volunteer Union soldiers tasked during the Civil War with a patrol post in the western territories, foregoes the director’s usual mode of documenting off-kilter modernity and so at first glance offers something of a superficial pivot from the considerations that permeate his previous work. But in its spiritual dimensions, in its study of people lost in the unthinking performance of obligation or else contending with the battle between individuation and (cultural/familial/self-destructive) tyranny, The Damned feels very much a part of Minervini’s larger project. 

There’s a particular and pronounced romanticism that drives the war film, typically regardless of such trivial details as which war and which national cinema it belongs to. But as arguably the most jingoistic of nations and inarguably the most self-righteous, the American war film is practically the national cinema for the layman — just ask your dad his favorite film for confirmation. It’s a consideration very much on Minervini’s mind in The Damned, where he seeks not just to subvert the myth of war itself, but rupture our basic notions of the war film. For a director whose art has heretofore been consumed with the American south, it’s notable that he here follows Union soldiers, the ostensible “good guys” fighting a righteous fight according to a reductive sense of history, and fashioning a non-narrative that understands war to be both existential catalyst and ideological black hole. There is no nobility here, no righteous cause for the soul of a nation. There are only men, subjected to that which they should never have to endure, all in service of an unidentifiable something. The Billy Yanks here move through the West’s untamed wilds, engage in nighttime skirmishes with a darkness-shrouded foe, take pot shots from behind trees at either unseen or out-of-focus others, and all the while discuss their beliefs, motivations, and fears with increasing frequency as their numbers diminish.

People/audiences have been conditioned to consider war/war films in terms of the collective, but Minervini is at his savviest here in presenting the experience as an intensely, and at its root perhaps entirely, personal affair. As the company dwindles in number, it feels as if the camera zooms in on these men, each further realized as individuals in proximity to each other rather than as a communal body, almost as if there is the understanding that our time to come to know these men is waning. Earlier on in the film, Minervini tends to shoot the men as silhouettes against vast skies or as interchangeable bodies in the night, shapes in service of a cause. As the film progresses, more natural daytime light is used, faces blossoming in clarity, the camera alternately lending the impression of haunting, hunting, or hugging these men — we locate the individual only in time to watch him fracture. To that end, in fireside scenes and other moments of station, motivations are unveiled, interrogated, and undone, vulnerabilities shared in their harsh and unfathomable present. When one young soldier outlines his faith in God, and its role in his involvement in the war, another responds: “I hope it stays that simple for you.” It’s in this acknowledgment, in these moments, that we come to understand all these professions of beliefs, of purpose, to be mere words, swirling and blowing through this negotiated camaraderie, destined to soon melt like the snow that blankets the ground.

It’s also in these sequences that Minervini brings us closest to our present American moment, not only in our persistence as two nations under one flag, but in recognizing the mental gymnastics required to exist, regardless of “side,” in a country as demanding of unwavering patriotism as the United States; after all, God and America are practically interchangeable in much contemporary rhetoric. Minervini delivers a tremendous study of the dramatic burgeoning of self-awareness within circumstances that reduce men to binaries, and the ways the self struggles to exist alongside any forms of absolutism: of God, of country, of war. To the film’s detriment, much of the dialogue, in aggregate, can feel too self-consciously designed in service of the film’s thematic intent, giving rise to a notable sense of artifice and grafting the impression of historical reenactment atop The Damned’s otherwise striking minimalism. But Minervini affectingly undercuts any sense of contrivance through the poetry of his aesthetic, none stronger in conveying the spiritual collateral demanded by war than the film’s final shot: two soldiers, heads tilted heavenward, snow sprinkling their unkempt beards. The image fittingly invokes the famous Old Testament verse: “Though your sins be scarlet, they shall be white as snow.” But God is not here, and neither are their comrades; only the understanding that there is no end. “It’s so quiet,” one observes, and we are left only to ponder the collapsed boundary between peace and damnation.

Published as part of Cannes Film Festival 2024 — Dispatch 4.