The notes accompanying Last Letters from Monte Rosa describe the production as taking place over a period of several years as money dribbled in from various sources. All told, the picture was apparently made for “less than several thousand dollars” with actors flown in when available and with parts of the East Coast doubling for Northern Italy, 1944. I generally don’t find this sort of information to be of much interest, especially given that we hear similar tales (usually of no-budget, NYC-set romantic comedies) seemingly every few hours, but this grass-roots context, applied to the war picture, stirred my curiosity, as the war picture is a genre that begs for liberation from the shackles of over-produced studio pageantry more than any other. Perhaps Last Letters from Monte Rosa could flip those limitations to its advantage, being (perhaps) another Men of War.
Last Letters from Monte Rosa isn’t another Men of War. It isn’t a Letters From Iwo Jima, or a Saving Private Ryan either. The picture, directed by Ari Taub, is another collection of lifeless stereotypes: the torn Lieutenant, inhumanly steadfast on the outside, morally tortured on the inside; the naïve innocent, preoccupied with a harlot he idealizes back home; the fat civilian schemer, outwardly mercenary, who might have a heart underneath his opportunistic facade; the chubby, baby-faced killer; and so on.
Most of the stereotypes involve some variation of the “hard shell with a good center” routine, a bit that Taub and screenwriter Caio Ribeiro are much too taken with. The filmmakers are endlessly congratulating themselves for supposedly empathizing with the villains of American WWII history books, who’re given the sort of underdog treatment normally reserved for our team. Struggling German and Italian squads, meant to unite to hold back the encroaching Allied Forces, bicker and sound beyond-obvious canned ironies. (The Italian baby-faced killer, one of the more vivid clichés in the picture, is supposed to be mentally limited—another stereotype—but as written, he sounds more like an earnest screenwriter at a Clashing Perspectives of German Occupation seminar.)
If Last Letters from Monte Rosa were rousing, it might partially transcend these limitations, but the picture is claptrap without a center or structure. The business with the letters, which is meant to be our access to long-dead soldiers’ thoughts, is mostly arbitrary, redundant, and intrusive (you keep forgetting that the letters even play a part in the story); and the ultimate shape of the film, which you assume is the ragtag teams coming together to die for something noble, is a total fizzle. That, in theory, could potentially neatly play against expectation, but here it’s old-fashioned poor storytelling.
The limitations of the budget do occasionally pare the business of the chaos of war down in likeable ways. A few of the attacks are immediate and effectively random, and the cinematography is ugly and gritty and dangerous, a nice deviation from the more art-directed chaos of Saving Private Ryan and seemingly every war game that would follow. Ultimately, though, Last Letters from Monte Rosa is well-meaning nonsense.