In 2003, Aureliano (Vinicio Marchioni), an anti-war activist, took up the chance to become an assistant director on a film about the Italian military presence during the Iraq War. Instead of finding himself at odds with the soldiers, they actually shared many of the same beliefs. But soon enough, the unit came under attack – and Aureliano (Vinicio Marchioni) was the only surviving civilian witness.

Based on director Aureliano Amadei’s experiences in Iraq.

Assured Iraq War satire takes everyone to task.

ITALIAN FILM FESTIVAL: This semi-autobiographical account about an Italian filmmaker embedded with his countrymen in Iraq in November 2003 is an odd but seductive mix of styles and dramatic registers. Director Aureliano Amadei begins the movie in a solemn mood: his hero, a twenty-something anti-war activist (based on himself and played by Italian TV star Vinicio Marchioni), is seen in the first moments looking weary and a little worn and musing (in voice over) about how it’s the little props in our day-to-day experience that become sign posts for life’s great turning points. Here it’s cigarettes. Aureliano, a chain smoker, never made it through a whole pack of cigarettes before getting blown up by a suicide bomber shortly after arriving in a war zone. Later he wrote a book about his experiences, and found himself a 'hero". But such a claim, in the face of death, destruction and lies, he eventually concludes, seems very much beside the point.

After the sober intro, the mood changes to a buoyant atmosphere that seems to aim to satirise all views on the Iraqi conflict (and by inference the paranoid, hyperbolic, self-aggrandising attitudes taken up by both champions and opponents of the West’s post-9/11 'War on Terror’). Aureliano gets a gig as an assistant director with pal and mentor, director Stefano Rolla (Giorgio Colangeli), who plans to make a feature on location in Iraq.

Aureliano’s character seems naïve, excited and out of his depth. (He views the whole thing as a big adventure and a chance to buttress his own feelings about war in general and Italy’s 'peacekeeping’ mission.) But he undergoes a profound change once he lands in the war zone; the soldiers he took for granted as warmongers and dupes turn out to be decent blokes after all; compassionate, some a little clumsy, others professional, wise and tough.

Aureliano is a filmmaker with classic virtues; he’s particularly good at working out the telling details that throw up human absurdity, like the 'smoking only zone" here, which consists of a tiny, metre square compound, a knee high boundary and a sign, parked in the middle of the desert a stone’s throw away from the soldier’s tent line!

The absurdities turn dark once Aureliano and his pals get blown up. (He remains the only civilian survivor.) His story is disputed; the army makes claims of gallantry and the Iraqi casualties from the incident are dismissed, discounted or disregarded all together.

20 Cigarettes has an urgent 'you are there’ feel that appears deliberately artless and it’s a clever bit of misdirection. It’s a strategy aimed at lulling the audience into a safe place, since everyone seems so self-absorbed in their own 'mission’ the possibility of bad things happening seems unlikely at first, but slowly an ominous feel grows. It’s with a sharp irony that Aureliano makes a scene out of the fact that he oversleeps on his first day in the war zone because he has set his clock to Rome time!

Once the bomb goes off, Aureliano switches to a very lengthy scene where the camera assumes the point of view of the director’s hero. It’s profoundly disturbing, claustrophobic and maddening, the scream, the blood, the confusion; after about 60 seconds of this you want the whole thing to revert back to a more conventional style. And I guess that’s the director’s point.

The film ends on an upbeat note (our main character of course lived to write his book and now make his film) and yet, he remains haunted by the lies that were told on his behalf. But most of all, it’s the Iraqi’s and their loss, especially their children. This note might seem sanctimonious and a little self-congratulatory, but it plays like sincere compassion. Aureliano is a survivor but a guilty one, and he wants us to count the cost of our moral certitude.