Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is one of those films that most people can’t in good conscience say they hate. In the tradition of films like Waking Ned Devine and Cinema Paradiso, it’s a sweet but flawed wartime romance with enough gorgeous scenery and quaint villagers to choke a horse. It innocuously celebrates the triumph of true love, exalts the rise of an everyman hero, toasts art’s ability to eclipse the horrors of life, and at times is even a visual feast (Miramax should charge the Greek tourist board royalties).
Adapted from the best-selling novel by Louis de Bernieres, the story begins in 1941. Dr. Iannis (John Hurt) and his lovely daughter Pelagia (Penélope Cruz) live on the idyllic Greek isle of Cephallonia, where Pelagia is betrothed to fisherman Mandras (Christian Bale) who’s eager to prove his mettle in the growing war in Europe. He goes off to fight for Greece against the Italians; in the meantime, the Italians invade his home island. But these Italians aren’t scary, Mussolini types; they’re jolly, good-natured and even kind. According to them, Italians are best at ‘eating, singing, and making love,’ which the filmmakers set out to prove to no end in this movie. Let’s put it this way: Puccini gets some serious screen time.
When the opera-crooning Captain Corelli (Nicholas Cage) — beloved mandolin in hand — is placed in Dr. Iannis’ home as a boarder, he and Pelagia fall in love. All seems wonderful, especially when word arrives that Mussolini has surrendered to the Allies. The Italians are ready to go home, but in handing over their arms to the still-fighting Germans, some of the fun-loving Italians get shot. Soon, Corelli and his men are working with the resistance to help liberate the island and avenge their brothers’ deaths. But, can these few men defeat a huge Nazi onslaught? Can true love prevail?
Don’t be so certain of the answer, but don’t expect miracles either. Films about love and war should have pathos and grit, and Corelli’s gives us smatterings of each. Unfortunately, those glimmers are smothered by incredulously bad, syrupy dialogue (‘I feel I could’ve watched you forever.’) and ludicrous — almost comic — accents. The performances are all passable, but Americans and Brits posing as Italians and Greeks can be too much to bear at times. Cage seems to be channeling a toned-down Roberto Benigni, exclaiming ‘Bella bambina!’ every time he catches sight of Cruz. And Christian Bale as a swarthy Greek revolutionary? That casting decision is pure comedy.
While it’s not remotely as bad as Pearl Harbor, the war here is basically a nice device to teach us the important lesson of acceptance. We’re all not so different (well, except maybe the Nazis, but everyone hates them, right?). Greeks, Italians, and Germans can remarkably understand each other… in their accented English, of course, and these cultural exchanges are where the film’s painless platitudes come to light.
Oddly, Corelli’s does provide quite a bit of gruesome battle footage and its fair share of brutal death, which gives you quite a jolt after watching an hour of bucolic harmony, Italians singing happily, lovers cooing at one another, and ‘Bella bambina!’ It’s a welcome shock back to reality.
But with the billing of ‘From the director of Shakespeare in Love,’ one would hope John Madden’s follow-up would have touted the same witty, incisive and radiant dialogue as its predecessor, but this script is made of lead. Instead of clever, we’re treated to cliché with a thick artsy varnish, and there’s certainly a big audience for that. Too bad he couldn’t get Tom Stoppard to bail him out this time.
One is the loneliest number.