I’m all for any attempt to revive that venerable cinematic form that is the Italian peplum, but by any stretch of the imagination Day of the Siege ain’t the film that’s going to do it. Based on the famed Battle of Vienna in 1683, in which the combined forces of the Holy Roman Empire and Poland managed to repel an invading Army from the Ottoman Empire despite being vastly outnumbered, this is a very thinly veiled allegory for the current fractious relationship between Islam and Christianity. On the one hand there’s Marco D’Aviano (F. Murray Abraham), a Franciscan monk who’s so righteous, so morally upstanding and so god-darned holy that you want to slap him; on the other there’s Karà Mustafà (Enrico Lo Verso), an ambitious career soldier who’s after glory rather than trying to do the right thing.
And therein lies the rub. Renzo Martinelli’s film is so biased, so desperate to portray Marco as an utterly heroic figure with not a single flaw in his personality that it becomes rather trying. This is a guy who is happy to count Muslims as his friend (although he still wants to convert them, off course); who refuses to be swayed by the riches and glamour of Charles V’s court; who is appalled by random acts of violence (depsite believing that the Islamic hordes should be repelled in any way possible, of course). And, most unlikely of all, he shows no kind of missionary zeal, he fights to defend his faith, not to extend it’s region of power. Contrast this with the behavior, for instance, of his friend, Abu’l (Yorgo Voyagis), a Turk who lives in Vienna and with whom Marco likes to enjoy civilized and congenial conversations. In the end, Abu’l can’t resist the lure of his faith, joins the Ottoman forces and betrays his wives, his children, his friends, his adopted countrymen (who previously had been shown trying to beat him to death, but heck) and god knows who else. If only Marco had managed to convert him, the message seems to be, he wouldn’t have behaved in such a dastardly manner (dastardly behavior being something incipient to Islam).
In the meantime there’s so much talking, so much jabbering about faith and honour, that the attention of even the most tolerant of viewers will have started to wane. And, when the final battle eventually comes, it’s a triumph of bad CGI before ending abruptly after the director of Deep End and The Shout (Jerzy Skolimowski, playing Jan III Sobieski, King of Poland) drags some canons up a hill and blasts the evil invaders out of Europe.
To a certain extent, Martinelli has to be applauded: to make a film in a country where every other production espouses cross-cultural understanding in which the only kind of meeting point between two cultures is a battleground takes some guts. But Martinelli is a controversialist, who has constantly got under the skin of the left-wing Italian critical establishment with films like The Stone Merchant, Vajont and Barbarossa: Siege Lord (to which this is a kind of semi sequel). It’s just a shame that his directorial talents don’t match his appetite for difficult subjects. Italian film fans will probably enjoy spotting performers like Voyagis and Hal Yamanouchi (who appeared in just about every Italian post-apocalypse movie from the 1980s), but there’s little to recommend above and beyond that.