Most war films are about famous campaigns, with casts of thousands – or, at least, hundreds – clashing in spectacular battle sequences, valiant armies competing to achieve a clear, if almost impossible, objective.
The Final Sacrifice is not like most war films.
Its cast is more accurately measured in the dozens – and even those numbers are split between four different forces. The story it tells is not a famous one, and the fighting is mostly hit-and-run, as soldiers and snipers play deadly games of hide-and-seek in the woods.
And the ultimate objective? That remains vague – apart from maybe, just, “Stay alive.”
Set in occupied Italy, in 1944, the film switches back and forth among several groups of combatants.
There are the occupying German forces, who retook much of the country once its government surrendered to the Allies. There are the invading Americans, now confidently marching forward. And there are the Italians – split between those still allied with the Germans, and the partisans determined to oppose them.
It’s a complicated story – too complicated perhaps for a film that barely clocks in at an hour-and-a-half. Some characters remain confusing, some strategies unexplained. It’s occasionally hard to not only tell who is who, but what they’re after.
Of course, that’s fitting, perhaps, for a film set in the fog of war, when it’s sometimes hard to tell who’s really on your side – or whose side you’re really on. When is an invasion a liberation? When is the enemy of your enemy your friend?
Yet the film is too diffuse to properly explore any of those questions. Perhaps if it had centered on two characters – the German commanding officer, and the Italian one sent to provide support – it might have achieved some clarity. But instead it flies off in too many directions, and too many moods, with awkward low comedy interrupting the drama.
Thomas Pohn, as a principled German officer, and Carmine Raspaolo, as a wily Italian civilian, give strong performances. But in making the German and Italian armies the stars of the story, The Final Sacrifice squanders too much of its sympathy on the Fascists.
It’s one thing, as in the classic Das Boot, for a movie to give the enemy his due. It’s another when it does it while running down their adversaries, reducing brave Italian partisans to nameless extras, and American G.I.s to crude connivers and drunks.
The Final Sacrifice has had its own battle getting to audiences. The film began shooting in 2001, and had several, abortive releases under different titles, including The Gothic Line. Although it now debuts on streaming in the director’s preferred cut, it is reportedly shorter than earlier versions. Sometimes those gaps show.
But it does have a couple of fine performances, and an unusual point of view. And although its re-appearance comes more than 20 years after it was first filmed, its underlying theme – that occupation is always an ugly thing, and liberations rarely go as planned – are, sadly, more pertinent than ever.