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The Damned (Roberto Minervini, 2024)

Roberto Minervini’s The Damned opens with an epigraph that sets us up for a period movie: a few lines of text tell us that in the winter of 1862, during the Civil War, the U.S. Army sent soldiers to patrol the unchartered territories of the western frontier. Yet the footage that follows, capturing a small band of uniformed men in a sparse, snow-covered landscape, betrays a slippery sense of time. The soldiers on screen ride horses and speak of the wickedness of slavery, but their accents and affectations are anachronistically contemporary. The premise is clearly fictional—a recreation of history—yet the camera is loose and close, and seems to capture something raw and immediate, with the texture of documentary.

Minervini, who is Italian but has lived in the United States for more than two decades, routinely mines contradictions in his films. Made in close collaboration with their subjects, often in the American South, movies like The Other Side (2015) and What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? (2018) mix nonfiction and performance to get to something closer to truth than reality; they are as much portraits of desires and aspirations as of people and places. The Damned both follows in this tradition and takes it in an ambitious new direction. For his “first fiction feature,” as the film is described in press materials, Minervini gathered a group of nonprofessional actors (some colleagues and carryovers from past projects, others brought in through open-door casting); set them up with costuming and props on location in Montana; and then captured their improvised interactions within a broad narrative framework. 

The result is somewhere between a restaging of a moment in America’s past and a document of present-day Americans reflecting on the process of nation-making. Amid the banalities of military activity—keeping watch, making plans, cleaning rifles—the men chat about what might prompt a man to put his life on the line for an ideal: ethics, religion, family, glory, plain old bloodthirst. Their conversations attempt to rebuild history from the bottom up, reflecting on the everyday motivations that grand narratives of victory, defeat, and heroism often sand away. A visceral sense of loneliness pervades the film: war emerges, in its telling, as a profoundly uncertain and solitary quest, an aggregation of individual hopes—and sacrifices—that often only retroactively cohere into a collective project.

At a Cannes Film Festival where the crises of the moment—genocide, misogyny, right-wing extremism—are either elided or paid cynical lip service, The Damned’s humane confrontation with the pervasive history and reality of war in America struck a chord. After the film’s premiere in this year’s Un Certain Regard section, I sat down with Minervini to dig into the project’s making and the ideas it explores.

In the press notes, you say that you wanted to depict war as something that is “not beyond the individual.” I was wondering if we could start with the idea of capturing war as something fundamentally individual, which to me is at the heart of the film. 

One of the things that sparked my determination in making this film was trying to find some sort of essence of it all, some sort of core. The war scene as an existential condition. The film is about being at war—not necessarily a war or a conflict. Of course, it is about the individual in a war, but it’s also about the interpreters of it, the individuals who decided to open up and be vulnerable in this journey. 

Are you referring to the actors?

Yes. How they were going to embark on this experience individually, what they were going to bring to it, how they felt around the political discourse versus the spiritual, and how scary or painful it was to reflect upon the state of America today or America before. It’s cathartic, and also traumatic at times. It makes them feel vulnerable: how physical the experience is, how heavy history weighs on them. Even wearing a U.S. Army uniform—yes, it’s a costume, but there are also military codes. In the end, I knew that if I wanted to tell a story about war, I wanted to avoid talking about a shapeless mass of humanity. There’s no counting of nameless bodies. It’s about this journey that is done alone. 

You said the film is about war itself more than a war, but it is really about a particular war in American history—and you depict Union soldiers, so you’re depicting the “righteous” side, which is a specific choice. A lot of times when we see war movies whose main characters are on the “right” side of history, it’s heroic, and when we see them fighting on the “wrong” side of history, it’s tragic. But here, it’s morally righteous yet tragic.

I went to this group of actors and assessed who wanted to be a part of the film. The starting point was Americans of today, people who are going to reflect about war, so there was already a sense of aptitude: they have a cultural background, they’re on the right side of it. But the fact that you have awareness doesn’t necessarily make you right. There are wars within the war; there are motives within the bigger motives. The more we dug into the history, the more elements I found that question what it means to be “righteous.” There’s an outcome that makes it righteous: the abolition of slavery. But are we going to assume that all of these people had that awareness and were ready to sacrifice their lives to liberate non-white people? Our research made us realize that that was never very clear. Slavery was abolished step-by-step. It wasn’t a full-blown ideal from the beginning. 

Given that the film is set in the American West, the unseen enemy feels a bit amorphous and evokes many iconic images.

That’s why the only time we see the enemy, it’s a silhouette, resembling old western movie posters. There’s a lot of care put into these details. There’s Davy Crockett echoing throughout, there’s a rifle being held a certain way, cowboy hats… We’re always in between the frontier, the old West, and another world. In a way it is this intentional rewriting of history, but humbly. Like, let’s start from within. Are we going to take all of written history as the status quo or look at where truth resides? Are we going to make it in our own experience? 

The central premise of a band of men sent to the West, to Montana, to patrol—is that lifted from a real historical record you found in your research? 

Yes, but there’s two reasons for choosing that. The film is set in 1862 because that’s when the Gold Rush started in Montana. Montana was part of the Dakota Territory at the time, and there was a discussion going on with the newly formed U.S. government and the governor of Dakota about access to these resources. So the U.S. Army started sending patrols to help the government of Dakota keep looters away and access resources in exchange for Native American territory. 

We also wanted to be on the margins of the Civil War, away from the weight of popular histories of the war, as I said in the beginning. I want to digress, connect my own dots—we want to write from within. We’re not going to go to Virginia to shoot this. The weight of Civil War iconography and history would be too much for the audiences and for us to bear. 

It sounds like a lot of the movie came from the actors and your conversations with them. My understanding is that there was an open-door casting, and all sorts of different people joined. What was that process like?

I knew I was going to bring the war down to a single battle—war is after all a series of battles—and the battle would have a “before” and an “after,” and that would be the structure of the film. The wait is an essential part of war: patrolling, waiting, eating, performing mundane actions. I often read criticism of mundanity [in storytelling] as superfluous, but it’s part of the military structure. I omitted very little—only the bugle sound that marks each hour. That’s what I knew before shooting, in terms of the film’s structure.

The actor with the red hair, Jeremiah Knupp, is a historian who worked on my first short film, Voodoo Doll, almost 20 years ago. I had three people from Stop the Pounding Heart who I knew would be able to contribute to this discourse, and two others who are fellow filmmakers. The rest just came along for the first time. There was no auditioning per se—people were free to come and go. The process of making the film I would call a series of assessments. I’m observing the way the story is going and what they’re bringing to it, and then we sit down and talk. How do you feel about the story? Some people feel proud, others feel fear. I tell them: you have a choice, to walk away, or to bring the fear into the film.

You’ve said that there were firefighters and members of the National Guard who showed up to the casting and ended up participating in the film. What understanding did they bring to the project? They’re soldiers of their own kind.

They added to the atmosphere. The first day I greeted everyone, someone raised their hand, and I found out he was a lieutenant. He said to the group, “You’re wearing a U.S. Army uniform. You have a responsibility towards it. It means a lot to us. It might not mean a lot to you, but you’re wearing a uniform, so respect it.” This is how the real and the fiction blended together. I allow for the real to kick in because it triggers a lot of thinking and emotional reactions in the actors, and that’s what moves the movie forward. You can hear someone say “trooper” in the beginning, and I couldn’t stop him. He said, “What do you want me to say, ‘bro’? A trooper is a trooper.” I said that was too much “trooper” for my film, and he said, “Yes, you’re making a film, but we also care about other things and not just your film.” And I said, “You know what? Yes, exactly.” 

The shooting of the film is really interesting as well. There are parts that feel very classical, like a war movie—existential conversations between older men and younger men, the battle scenes—but the form is also very documentary-like, with loose point-of-view shots. The sound design adds to that feeling, too. Even when you’re shooting in a stylized way, one can hear all this naturalistic diegetic sound around the dialogue: someone whispering, someone striking a rock. 

The film was built around the dialectic between the immediacy of my style of working and the lexicon of genre. It’s almost as if we wanted to say, let’s step into the genre, but let’s question its presets. I talked about this in the beginning with my camera operators. I said, “Look, if the camera is wobbly or you pan, you’re giving me a cut. So if you walk with the camera, be steady, or it’s a cut, because we need to have this dialogue with genre.” The color palette, the format, the aspect ratio—that’s also going to be referential. The sound does the same thing. You can hear the zings of bullets in a moment that is clearly referencing the genre, like the battle scene. You can hear that some of the sounds are artificial, but at the same time, you hear sounds that are organic that interfere, or put into question what is going on. 

How does paying actors work when you have this kind of project?

In this case, I luckily had a serious production in place with a comfortable, substantial budget. I’m a co-producer; I try not to get involved in the rest, but I do try to be very democratic. I know the core group share the same pay. There’s a lot of equanimity that goes into it, because the film doesn’t have any main characters. I made it a point not to have a main character.

Something I was told in journalism school is to never pay your sources, because that compromises the relationship. But I’m often curious about documentaries, which blur the lines a bit; the subjects are also performing, so there’s labor involved. In your films that performance aspect is even stronger.

Maybe this is the reason I am now disenchanted with documentary—in the end, documentary is never delivering truth, it’s delivering believability. It is a politically catastrophic tool. We Americans went through a presidency where believability became truth. Documentary can only deliver an experience which is altered. A filmmaker and a subject will never inhabit the same space in life; they’re going to do it for a little bit and then never meet again, most likely, so it’s already an altered state. The documentary only tells that experience: there’s nothing truer than that. Paying is just another factor that goes into it. The question is, what can payment do? Trigger a performance? OK, well, then the performance is the foundation of the documentary. Or if people are only involved because of pay…

The question can be, why do you need the money? 

Yes. Do they invest all their time in you? Am I the only one getting paid? Then I’m perpetrating a class divide. I’m not pontificating on anything, but this unwritten ethical code that is elevated to truth just because it’s accepted by a group is what makes me extremely disenchanted with reality-based cinema. Stepping into a realm of fictional filmmaking allows me and the actors to digress omnidirectionally into history, politics, and religion without having to abide by some hierarchical ethical code.