Tuesday, June 5, 2012

MM Movie Review: Captain Corelli's Mandolin

“Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” is a 2001 film (the last in our look at Italian war films starring Nicholas Cage) directed by John Madden and starring Nicholas Cage and Penelope Cruz. The movie has been much-derided, both when it came out and since, for playing up national stereotypes, it was not well received by critics and disappointed some fans of the book upon which it was based. The accusation that it makes virtually every character into a stereotype is, frankly, legitimate. For much of the time, actually most of the time, the film is running, it is one long stereotypical characterization of the Italians, Greeks and Germans. However, it did manage to draw attention to one of the previously most overlooked or forgotten but proud and heroic pages in the history of the Royal Italian Army; the defense of the island of Cefalonia from the Germans. I tend to give the film a great deal of credit simply for accomplishing that. The book did this as well but, as always, more people will watch a movie than read a book. Since the production more people have become aware of Italian heroism on Cefalonia and the Greek and Italian governments have recognized their sacrifice during the chaos of World War II.
The film opens with an introduction to the happy, simply Greeks of the island of Cefalonia, particularly the lovely Pelagia (Penelope Cruz), her father the town doctor (played by John Hurt as a gruff but good man -I know, John Hurt as a good guy, it’s weird) and Mandras, Pelagia’s love interest who is played by a barely recognizable Christian Bale. Pelagia and Mandras are expected to be married even though he is an uncouth, uneducated fisherman and she is a super-intelligent daughter of a doctor. However, when the war arrives in Greece, Mandras immediately departs to go fight the Italians along the Albanian border. Pelagia writes to him religiously but hears nothing back and eventually gives up on him as being either dead or simply beyond her. Of course, the film plays up the idea that the Greeks were winning the war against Italy before the Germans came in (which is not exactly true, things were more or less stalemated) and one would get the impression that the Italians never won even a single battle against the Greeks, which is not true. In any event, Greece is conquered and the island of Cefalonia is occupied by Italian forces of the Acqui division, including the captain of artillery Antonio Corelli (Nicholas Cage).

Captain Corelli speaks Greek, takes an immediate liking to Pelagia and stays at their house in exchange for providing the doctor with medical supplies. Captain Corelli and his men are pretty much walking stereotypes. The are lustful, wine loving, opera singing artillerymen who have never fired a shot in anger and who would rather have a good time than fight or observe military discipline. They are the relaxed, fun-loving guys and the Germans (the few we see) are all rigid, militaristic jerks. The actors are all good but they have not been used to best advantage. A good example being Cage’s ridiculous attempt at an Italian accent. Personally, I think it is often better to just speak your own language without attempting an accent if you cannot master it properly. Mandras returns from the front and is nursed back to health by Pelagia and his mother (played by Irene Pappas who was also in the previously reviewed “Lion of the Desert”). He never wrote back because he is illiterate, which Pelagia did not know (and evidently he could not ask a friend to write for him after they read him the letters where she is clearly becoming forlorn and distraught at his silence but … oh well). Especially when compared with the novel, the characters in the film come off as extremely simplistic to the point of being rather flat.
The Italians eventually come to be more and more accepted by the Greek locals. This infuriates Mandras who goes to join the guerillas and, of course, a romance slowly builds between Pelagia and Captain Corelli. However, conditions become more difficult as the war goes on and it becomes clear that the Germans and Italians are nearing a split, especially after the fall of Rome to Allied forces. To their great delight Captain Corelli and his men learn that Mussolini was removed from power and they think that the war is over for Italy. The Greeks begin celebrating as well, pulling down Italian flags and replacing them with the Greek colors as the Germans retreat. The Italian forces are told that they will surrender to the Germans, hand over their weapons and be transported back to Italy. However, despite the woman between them, Mandras tries to persuade Captain Corelli to hand over the Italian weapons to the guerillas. The Greeks tell Corelli that the Germans are preparing to occupy the island and that Italian forces who surrendered were either killed or sent to concentration camps in Germany. Obviously, this makes the Italians less than happy to cooperate when the Nazis arrive to disarm them. Tensions are raised and the Germans machine gun several of the Italian troops.

The Nazi forces still promise to send all Italians safely home but Captain Corelli no longer believes them and so the Italian forces decided to resist and defend the Greeks and their island from the Germans. Working with the partisans, they distribute what weapons they have and deploy their forces to fight the German invasion. There is a short, fierce battle in which the Italians offer determined resistance but they have nothing to counter the German air attacks and are eventually vanquished. The Germans then gather together all the Italian prisoners and begin massacring them. Captain Corelli would have been killed but, keeping a promise to watch over him to Pelagia, one of his men shields him with his body and saves his life. Mandras finds him and brings him to the doctor and Pelagia and the doctor manages to save him even though he was very badly wounded. He stays hidden with Pelagia as the Germans kill any Italians and anyone found harboring Italians in a wave of brutality. Captain Corelli is finally smuggled off the island by Greek partisans and returns to Italy.

Mandras says he saved the Captain so that Pelagia might love him again and he tells her how he had every one of her letter read to him until he memorized them until the final one in which Pelagia broke it off. Of course, he never explains why he had no one to answer for him when the letters kept getting more and more sad and urgent with each one but … oh well. After the war ends Pelagia, who is studying to be a doctor, receives a package from Italy containing a record of the mandolin song Captain Corelli wrote for her. She doesn’t even listen to all of it but her father writes to him and more or less asks him to come back because Pelagia is still longing for him. Immediately afterward there is a huge earthquake and Pelagia thinks her father is killed, but he’s not and this shakes her emotions loose, she has a good cry and things go back to normal. And then, of course, Captain Corelli (now a civilian) returns, reunited with Pelagia and everyone can live happily ever after.

The movie is not as bad as the reputation it has gained as one of Cage’s more infamous stinkers. It’s just not very good either. It is heavy on stereotypes, everything is pretty predictable and it tells the sort of story most moviegoers have seen a hundred times. However, it can be moving at times, the characters are generally sympathetic and so on. The only ones I had a real problem with were Mandras and the German. Mandras because he simply comes across as being, well, not a terribly nice guy. If he loved Pelagia as much as he claimed he should have answered her damn letters, he admits he only saved Corelli for selfish reasons and he allowed a lifelong friend to be murdered just because she danced with a German (and I’m not going to say there was more to it because the movie didn’t show us any more). The German comes across as sort of an innocent guy who has been brainwashed but in the end he is just as brutal as the rest (though he does spare Corelli’s life) and we see no reason for this, no change in him or anything of the kind. However, as I said before, I will give this movie credit for at least getting more people to read about the real story of Italian heroism on the island of Cefalonia during World War II, something which received very little attention before the book and movie came out.

No comments:

Post a Comment