Captain Corelli\'s Mandolin (2001) ***
Directed by John Madden. Written by Shawn Slovo, based on the novel by Louis de Bernieres. Photography, John Toll. Editing, Mick Audsley. Music, Stephen Warbeck. Production design, Jim Clay. Produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Kevin Loader and Mark Huffam; Cast: Nicolas Cage (Capt. Antonio Corelli), Penelope Cruz, (Pelagia), John Hurt (Dr. Iannis), Christian Bale (Mandras), David Morrissey (Captain Weber) , Irene Papas (Drosoula). A Universal release. 120 minutes. R (violence, exposed breasts)
A good movie, yet one that is unappreciated if I were to judge by the very few reviews I have seen. Too bad since the book has been a runaway best-seller and the film belongs to a minority genre, that of "historical" works which deal with little-known facts in intelligent, well-informed fashion.
Its setting is Cephalonia (the real one, not a studio stand-in), on the Ionian sea. Like all of the isles of Greece it is beautiful it is, but neither made movie-beautiful nor tourist-pretty. The time-span is 1939 through 1943, with a coda set some years after the end of World War II.
The movie's main problem is the unfamiliarity of most viewers with certain aspects of WWII. This probably affects the public's understanding of "Corelli" and makes the audiences focus on its love-story component --- which is really a secondary aspect of the movie. So here is a small chronology of the events. It could be a "spoiler," a term used by people who write about films whenever they give away certain details of the plot that could spoil for viewers the suspense, etc. Read at your own peril.
Sept. 1, 1939: WWII begins. Oct. 28, 1940: Mussolini's Italy, which had previously occupied Albania, launches the attack on Greece, from Albania. The Italian forces are much larger than the Greek ones and have incomparably more and better weaponry and equipment. November 1940-April 1941. Having heroically counter-attacked the Italians, the Greeks have been pushing them back into Albania. April 6, 1941. Hitler has decided to save face for his Italian allies, comes to their rescue by invading Greece via Yugoslavia and Bulgaria. The country is divided into zones of occupation by Germans and Italians. In practice, even in their own zones, the Italians are entirely subservient to the Germans. May 1941. German and Italian troops occupy Cephalonia -- through the summer of 1943. June 22, 1941. Hitler's "Operation Barbarossa." Germany attacks/invades Russia. The operation was delayed partly because certain German forces had been previously diverted to Greece. The delay meant fewer good- weather days for the Germans in Russia before the winter of 41 set in savagely and to the detriment of Hitler. July 1943. The Allies invade Sicily. Soon Mussolini falls. Sept. 3, 1943. Italy surrenders to the Allies. Sept. 1943. Some Italian troops resist the Germans who try to disarm them. In a first massacre in Cephalonia the Germans kill 1,646 Italian soldiers. Then, after 5,000 Italians on the island surrender they are killed by the Germans. 3,000 Italians sent by ship to camps in Germany also perish when Allies, unaware of the facts, sink several of those ships.
In "Corelli" we see primarily the interaction between the locals and those Italian occupiers led by Captain Corelli The Italians are depicted with sympathy. Music-lover Corelli (Nicolas Cage) aptly named after a great Italian musician-composer) arrives with his group of equally music fanatics. And that's the limit of their fanaticism. No passion for Il Duce, no interest in the Fuehrer, no "patriotism," no thinking of the occupied Greeks as "the enemy." They are, and say they are, "bons vivants," men who like to sing, to make love, eat, drink and be merry. Corelli's men bring along not just wine but also a handful of Italian hookers --some of whom go topless at the beach.
All that is nicely handled, and authentic, too. Mussolini's Fascism did have his fanatics, but they were a small fraction of Italy's population. Il Duce had grandiose, operatic dreams of remaking his country into the glory that was Ancient Rome, but the dreams of Corelli's men were literally operatic. To their credit, most Italians made bad soldiers. Unlike the Nazis, they retained their humanity. The Greeks and the Italians have a great deal in common. During the Occupation of Greece the villains were deservedly the Germans. So, for men, and especially women, to fraternize with the enemy was not necessarily a crime or even a taboo, since the enemy was Germany and not really Italy. And this comes through very well in the movie.
Beyond the historical "meat" of the movie, the story within the story is the love affair between the doctor Iannis's (John Hurt) daughter Pelagia (Penelope Cruz) who's engaged to fisherman Mandras (Christian Bale) but falls in love with Corelli.
"Corelli" has much going for it. The performances are very good. The photography is well controlled and lets the beauty of the place speak for itself, without a surcharge of picturesqueness. The focus is on the city of Argostoli, the island's capital which became rubble after the 1953 earthquake. Using a smaller town, the sets reconstruct beautifully the Italianate architecture of the place. (Cephalonia had been under Venetian rule for three centuries). Good music, very much of its period.
A few speaking parts use Greek actors, but the main roles are with non-Greeks. It is, I admit, a stretch to accept Cage as an Italian and the great John Hurt as a Greek, in spite of their doing yeoman jobs in accent-faking. No such problem with Penelope Cruz who is Spanish and finds the sound of Greek easier to imitate. She also seems convincingly Greek. And it helps that she does not look like a glamorous Hollywood bimbo.