Back view of a young man as he runs, panting. Deafening sounds surround him: bursts of machine-gun fire, shouting, the roaring of an engine gone mad. He runs for a few more yards. Then, suddenly, the sounds disappear in an undertow, everything turns black. So that’s how you die when you are shot in the head. You don’t see or hear anything anymore, you feel weightless, as though you were floating. Your blood is making its last trip around your body and soon you will cease to exist. The silence is saturated by a continuous, annoying buzzing. The young man’s swollen eye opens with difficulty. He is lying on the ground, his face covered with dust. He opens his mouth wide and tastes blood and dirt. He breathes, almost in surprise. No, you’re not dead, at least not yet. You can’t die here. Not in an army military base. Everything is out of focus. The youth’s bloody hand attempts to clean his eye. In slow motion pieces of metal, shrapnel and debris rain around him. He looks around, bewildered and incredulous. I have never worn a uniform in my life. I even dodged the draft. What the fuck. Am I. Doing. Here. Aureliano Amadei is 28 years old, without a steady job. He lives in Rome and drifts through life tackling the typical problems of someone born in the mid-seventies to ex-hippy parents. They are separated but have found a niche in the Roman bourgeoisie world of their origins. His father, less well-off and with artistic aspirations, is a photographer. The majority of his clients are survivors of the bribeville scandals of the nineties who hire him to immortalize their expensive weddings. In his spare time he shoots National Geographic-style documentaries which no-one ever buys. His well-to-do mother still thinks she is living the Sixties and spends her time ostentatiously searching for spirituality. Aureliano lives with her and just as ostentatiously challenges all that is spirituality, meditation and even mere reflection. Aureliano does not think. Or at least he doesn’t think very much. He simply takes and does. Anarchic, pacifist, somewhat shallow, he is a perfect example of the eternal adolescent. He dreams of working in films but actually drifts from one odd job to another, content to wait for his big chance. A few months earlier, following Bush’s declaration that the war was over as of May 2003, the Italian government sent 3000 soldiers to Iraq, officially on a mission of peace. Under the patronage of the Italian Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Defense a family friend of Aureliano’s, Stefano Rolla, is preparing a film on the Italian contingent. Stefano is an overwhelming, still-youthful man in his mid-sixties. He has been part of the film world for a lifetime and has had several important experiences as a producer. Now he calls himself a creative producer. He offers Aureliano the chance of going to Iraq as production assistant. The film is titled “Soldiers of Peace”. Aureliano is doubtful, both for political reasons and because he is worried about working in a combat zone. He asks his father for advice but the latter only tells him: “So you’re going to Iraq? Then leave me the hash. You can’t take it with you, it’ll dry out . . .” His mother doesn’t try to stop him either. The only one who does so is Claudia. Claudia is Aureliano’s girlfriend, if he were mature enough to have a real girlfriend. She works as a television editor. She lives alone, reads the newspapers and has definite political opinions. She and Aureliano go to bed together, they love each other but their relationship will never go anywhere unless he decides to grow up and take his place in the real world. On the day of his departure Aureliano is still arguing over his contract with the director and producer of the film. They both reassure him about the safety of the trip: Nasiriya is in a Shiite zone and therefore completely reconciled, and furthermore, the population adores Italians. Unfortunately they cannot afford to give him a salary for the time being but, should the film be made . . . Finally Aureliano decides to sign the contract as a volunteer with the title of “assistant director”. There has also been a change of plan: he is to leave immediately, that very evening, to join Rolla who is already there working on the preparations. the producer shakes his hand and tells him: “you’ll see, one day you’ll thank me . . . ” Aureliano mounts his moped and goes to join some friends for a last drink before his departure. As he weaves his way through the traffic-congested city center he notices the many peace flags suspended from balconies. But such things don’t interest him much except as enhancement of inane jokes while shooting the breeze over a beer. And that is how he spends his last evening in Rome: parrying the animated teasing of his friends with the words “hey, no sweat, it’s a case of war between a modern army and a bunch of Arab nomads. And I’m with the modern army. But, should things go wrong, I’ll just cross over. Those guys are probably more fun anyway.” At the end, as is ritual in such cases, they tell Aureliano he’ll get blown up. They all laugh. He does too, even though his right hand sneaks into his pants pocket and rubs a good-luck charm superstitiously. Then he climbs onto the table and jokingly gives instructions for his funeral. His eyes search for Claudia’s, suggesting a toast. But she turns away, sets her glass on the table and walks out. Aureliano quickly downs his drink and follows her. They quarrel and she stalks away, leaving him standing in the middle of the street. He follows her home, pleads with her over the intercom and finally she lets him in. They make love, she asks him not to go. But Aureliano has made up his mind. From the beginning the journey is adventurous and traumatic. He finds himself on a military plane, a C-130, cold and Spartan with gurneys instead of seats. The soldiers are a surprise, however. Young men who seem more like kids on a school outing: carefree yet resigned at the same time, both scared and excited by what is waiting for them. Aureliano arrives at the military airport of Talill on the afternoon of November 11th. He immediately discovers that the situation in Iraq is not as calm as people think in Italy. He smokes his first Iraqi cigarette in a ridiculous outdoor smoker’s zone demarcated only by a cement curb and chats with some Carabinieri (members of an Italian police force) who ask him incredulously: a movie, here? Now? Are you guys crazy?! During the transfer to the White Horse barracks, for the first time in his life Aureliano hears the burst of AK-47 machinegun fire. It sounds quite near and the soldier accompanying him, Lt. Massimo Ficuciello, seems uneasy even when he says that it is probably just a wedding: “when they shoot at you,” he says, “you don’t have the time to hear them.” The White Horse barracks is a fortress in the middle of the desert. Ficuciello shows Aureliano the security system: mined fields, cement barriers, guard towers, satellite defense systems. Once inside the barracks Aureliano seems to relax. He looks around him curiously, avid for detail. The shots in the desert seem far away now. Here he feels safe. Ficuciello takes him around White Horse, explaining army rules. Everything is new to Aureliano: when he had been called up for his mandatory military service he eluded it by claiming he was homosexual. The two become friends. Massimo is gentle and amusing, he works in a bank and every so often he enlists in some mission or other to please his father, a general, and also to travel around the world and put away a fat paycheck. As the two smoke a cigarette before a magnificent desert sunset, finally Stefano Rolla arrives to claim their attention and deluge them with anecdotes. Later, in the bedroom Rolla helps him unpack, showing him how to pile his clothes in vertical stacks to protect them from the sand. Aureliano tells him of the problems with the production company. Stefano smiles and reassures him: the money is always found in the end, that’s cinema. They embrace. Aureliano thanks him for his faith in him: this is his first job as assistant director. Stefano’s snoring is unbearable and Aureliano goes out of the room to smoke a cigarette. Inhaling calmly as he gazes at the huge desert spread around him, Aureliano tries to make order in the turmoil of emotions that have overcome him. He is excited and happy, although still stunned and confused by so much that is new and strange to him. He lets his gaze wander over the dunes, takes a last drag from his cigarette, and smiles. November 12, 2003, 10:00 am. Stefano Rolla and Aureliano, inside a small army bus, leave the barracks to visit possible location sites. They are escorted by Lt. Massimo Ficuciello, warrant officer Silvio Olla, a giant of a man with an amiable smile, and two soldiers from the Sassari Division: Corporals-major Raffaele Tria and Alessandro Mereu. A series of minor, unforeseen circumstances gets them to a late start and this will decide their fate: Aureliano hadn’t set his alarm clock to Nasiriya time; Olla arrived half an hour late for their appointment. The jeep takes off with screeching tires to suddenly skid to a halt a few feet outside the barracks. The soldiers have forgotten their weapons and must turn back to collect them. Once in the desert, Rolla cannot find the place he wanted to see again. They have a map but it is impossible to unfold and read because the wind made by the fast-moving vehicle is too strong. They are forced to stop. The soldiers climb out, their faces hard and tense as they point their weapons in the four cardinal points. Rolla shakes his head, the map is no help. The six men decide to go to the Maestrale Carabinieri barracks, sure their “cousins” can give them the necessary directions. Back on board everyone is silent. Aureliano looks around him, bewildered. Around him lie the ruins of a war-devastated city. Nasiriya shows evident signs of battle: old armored tank carcasses, shells, partly-destroyed blocks of cement, uprooted light poles. Groups of barefoot children run towards their jeep begging for water. Olla explains to the men that security prevents their stopping. The group crosses the bridge over the Euphrates and reaches the Maestrale barracks. These barracks are not surrounded by fences or concertina wire, there is no special protection visible from the outside. All the jeep encounters on its way is a single barrier at the entrance. Four of the men get out while Tria and Mereu drive off to park further away. A few yards inside Rolla comes upon some Carabinieri acquaintances of his, just leaving for patrol duty. As they make their way back to the barracks entrance they start reminiscing about an August holiday spent in the desert, 61°C (149°F) in the shade, during which they ate polenta with their bare hands. A blast of gunfire comes from the road outside. Aureliano turns a worried look to the men escorting them. A truck suddenly bursts around the bend in front of the barracks. On it a man armed with a Kalashnikov submachine gun is shooting in all directions. Suddenly the truck swerves and crashes through the barrier marking the entrance. It heads directly for Aureliano who stares at it paralyzed, like a mouse about to be devoured by a snake. The little group scatters. Rolla and Ficuciello run along the wall, Olla flees in the opposite direction. Shouts now mingle with the sound of the engine and the bursts of gunfire. Desperately Aureliano makes a run for the Carabinieri’s jeep. Then, in an instant, everything goes black. A muffled buzzing. Aureliano’s swollen eye opens and sees metal debris, rubble and shreds of flesh and fabric raining around him. A pair of combat boots rapidly crosses his line of vision. The hazy outline of a huge tanker appears suddenly behind them. With difficulty Aureliano props himself up onto his arms and stands up. A jeep explodes noiselessly a couple of dozen yards from him: the buzzing covers all sounds. With one shoulder completely soaked in blood and shards piercing every part of his body, Aureliano attempts to run toward the tanker in search of shelter. His right foot is attached to the rest of his body only by a strip of skin. After a few steps he falls to the ground. Crawling painfully on his elbows he finally manages to reach and hide under the vehicle. He puts a hand to his shoulder and takes it away covered in blood. A soldier joins him, it is Alex Mereu. Shouting, they ask each other about their wounds. As the buzzing sound grows softer, the outside noises return: gunshots, explosions, shouts. Mereu and Aureliano are now also joined by Tria. He doesn’t seem hurt. He holds a rifle which shakes nervously as his wary eyes dart left and right, trying to keep the sides of the tanker covered. A few yards from them a Carabiniere, his face disfigured by the explosion, shoots bursts of machinegun fire at the barracks entrance. The jeep he is leaning on suddenly bursts into flame and envelops him. Aureliano tries to catch the attention of Tria and Mereu. Any moment now their assailants will be here to finish them off. They must find a way out. A scream comes from a flaming armored vehicle. In the nick of time Mereu and Tria manage to haul away a soldier, Groccia, just before his jeep explodes. Huddled under the tanker and with only a single rifle among them, the three soldiers try to guess from which direction the assault will come. Aureliano watches their nervous excitement as though it had nothing to do with him. He seems to be asking himself: how the fuck did I wind up here? Seated with his head resting on the huge tire of the vehicle he tries to calm his breathing. He searches his wrinkled jeans pockets for a cigarette stub. But when he is about to light it Mereu stops him: the tanker could be full of gasoline. A burst of machinegun fire hits the side of the truck. In vain Aureliano searches for a new hiding place. Then, seeing a fire truck in the distance, he decides to make a run for it. Once again crawling forward on his elbows he manages to reach the outside walls of the barracks. He climbs up them. On reaching the top he realizes the fire truck is too far away. Bullets continue whistling all around him. Aureliano crouches inside a Hesco bastion (a wire mesh container with a heavy duty plastic liner filled with sand) lying on top of the wall. Outside the barracks a small group of Iraqi civilians has seen him. They call to him, “hey, mister,” and with gestures indicate he should jump. Poising himself on his left leg, Aureliano dives into emptiness. He is picked up immediately, taken to the corner of the road and hauled onto a pickup truck. For some minutes it does not move, the Iraqis seem to have disappeared. Aureliano looks around fearfully. Beside the truck lies a disemboweled mule, its entrails spread over the asphalt. In front of the wall surrounding the barracks is a school bus in flames. A carbonized forearm and a watch, intact. It looks like Stefano’s watch. Aureliano tries to lean out and get a better look but a sudden shooting pain stops him. His shoulder is leaving a puddle of blood on the surface of the pickup, which has finally begun to move. One of his rescuers climbs up onto the truck with a child in his arms. He lays it down on top of Aureliano. During the journey across the desert the pain, at first dulled by shock, begins to make itself felt with full force. His wounded foot is twisted to the wrong side and jolts with every bump, making him cry out in pain. The Iraqi looks at him with a somber expression, Aureliano is confused. He asks himself whether his rescuers are actually guerrillas, whether they are abducting him. The weight of the child on his chest is smothering him. He tries to move it. It is a boy of about ten years of age, his eyes wide open and staring. Aureliano realizes he is dead. He lights a cigarette and offers one to the man on the truck with him. His foot continues to jolt, but Aureliano does not scream anymore. The pickup comes to a halt. Aureliano is put onto a stretcher. The floor of the pediatric hospital is sticky with blood. As he is taken inside he passes dozens of hideously mangled and mutilated men and women. An exhausted doctor, his coat completely red, is the first to give Aureliano assistance and a shot of morphine. Two Carabinieri come for him. Aureliano asks them for news about Rolla. No-one knows anything. They take him to the civilian hospital of Nasiriya. There are hundreds of wounded here too. Aureliano asks a Carabiniere if all of them have been hurt in the attack. The other man looks at him amazed: hey, there’s a war going on here . . . The doctors try to remove his shoe so they can inspect his foot and Aureliano screams in pain. Another dose of morphine almost puts him out. Shaken and anesthetized by the drug, Aureliano drifts off. Lying on the makeshift bed in the hospital corridor while doctors and nurses run feverishly back and forth among the wounded, all hell loose around him, Aureliano finally closes his eyes and dozes. At one point two men from the Red Cross ask him questions he cannot answer. When they discover he is Italian they put him into an ambulance and take him away. During the journey Aureliano drifts continuously back and forth from sleep to wakefulness. The confused bits of information a nurse gives him about the attack are interspersed by a surreal discussion with an Iraqi guerrilla who has returned to kill him. In the dream the Iraqi says he has come to complete Allah’s will. Aureliano answers that Allah is great and therefore, if he is still alive, that must be Allah’s will. The Iraqi says he doesn’t understand English and shoots him. Aureliano screams. A male nurse calms him down. He tells him the Italian hospital is full. They’ll take him to the American one. The American hospital is a field hospital, composed entirely of tents. Doctor Fester, a young medic with a reassuring air examines his foot, grasps it with both hands and tries to put it back into its correct position. Aureliano screams again and before he can tell the doctor of his two previous shots of morphine, a third shot risks sending him into a coma. Aureliano wakes up to find himself sitting on a bed with two nurses standing behind him. They are cheerful as they disinfect his wounds, extract the metal slivers from his back one by one and carefully put them into a plastic bag. Each shows the other her bag, as though they were in competition for some prize. A complicated apparatus of metal wires and rods emerges from Aureliano’s leg and foot. Aureliano asks the nurses for news of Rolla and more information about the attack. But they know nothing. The Italian military in the hospital with him say it was a bomb and many were killed. Fifteen or sixteen men. No-one knows anything about Rolla. General Stano of the Sassari Brigade comes to visit the wounded. He fires a volley of questions at Aureliano. “You were with Ficuciello, weren’t you? And with warrant officer Olla? Christ, they’re all dead! You’re lucky.” “Is Stefano dead too?” “You mean Mr. Rolla? Yes, he’s dead.” Aureliano does not say another word. He turns his head away and remains in silence. Thanks to a Carabinieri’s cell phone Aureliano manages to call home. A news agency had reported him dead. He reassures his parents about his condition. Smoking is forbidden at the American hospital. After two days of abstinence Aureliano convinces one of the nurses to find him a wheelchair and take him outside. Staring out at the plain of Dhi Qar under a magnificent starlit sky, Aureliano finishes his first and last pack of Iraqi cigarettes. The next day a military plane brings him home. As soon as he lands at Ciampino Airport near Rome, Aureliano begins to realize what awaits him in Italy: a row of soldiers stands at attention and salutes; authorities and members of the press burst onto the runway while family and relatives are kept in the background. The stretcher bearers argue before taking the wounded out of the plane: everything must be perfect. The massacre of Nasiriya is already turning into a show. Several hours after his arrival in hospital Aureliano is finally allowed to see his parents. He has been preparing himself for this encounter for days, he has polished and perfected every phrase, every single word. Yet now, overcome by emotion, he cannot get out a sound. The three embrace in silence, sobbing. From his first day in the hospital in Rome, Claudia takes over Aureliano’s room: she co-ordinates his visitors, decides who can come and for how long. She is very gentle with everyone else, brusque with him. As though she won’t forgive him for having left her, as though she won’t forgive him for having almost been killed. Meanwhile one of the survivors of the tanker has decided to proclaim himself a hero: taking advantage of Mereu’s temporary amnesia, Tria starts asserting it was he who pulled Aureliano and the others to safety. Tria’s attempt to walk away with a medal is only a minor part of the incredible delirium created by the news media: many survivors and almost all their family and relatives, each does his best to grab his own five minutes of fame. The hospital is constantly invaded by journalists and politicians who come to visit “the heroes.” His mother and a priest tirelessly explain to him that his being alive is a miracle, he must thank God, he should re-think his whole life now that he has this “second opportunity.” Aureliano receives dozens of official visitors: ministers, generals, military commanders. The visit of Ficuciello’s parents touches him deeply: the great dignity with which they bear their sorrow and their thoughtfulness toward him bring tears to his eyes. When they leave the room Claudia goes up to him and caresses him. He takes her hand and attempts to kiss it but she pulls away. She takes her coat from the hanger and makes her way to the door. Aureliano calls out. He asks her: “What’s the matter?” Claudia replies, “Nothing” “Come on, Claudia, don’t kid me, tell me what’s wrong.” “What’s wrong?! What’s wrong is the way you’ve treated me, for all the shit you’ve made me take, I was wishing you’d step on a mine . . . but being the jerk you are, as usual you went and overdid it!” Aureliano watches her leave, his mouth hanging open. Then he lays his head back on the pillow and smiles up at the ceiling and the entire world. We see them some time later in a small apartment above Aureliano’s father’s store. It is night. Aureliano looks out of the window and listens to the sounds of the outside world, he stares at the stars barely visible under a haze of clouds and smog. Then he returns to Claudia, lying in bed. She is asleep, or maybe pretending to be. Aureliano lies down beside her and slowly, full of tenderness, embraces her as though wanting to envelop her entirely. Claudia opens her eyes, she smiles at him. Moved, they kiss and slowly, gently start making love. Their lips, their kisses, their eyes, their skin. Aureliano looks at her: their smiles reveal flashes of sunlight and mischief.. Then Claudia and Aureliano reach orgasm. A low moan for him, a tremor suddenly cut short for her. She tries to pull herself from under him but Aureliano holds her fast. She looks at him as though he were mad, Aureliano smiles at her mischievously and whispers “yes.” Claudia doesn’t know what to say, or do. She simply embraces him.