MEDITERRANEO (Italy, 1991) ***. Directed by Gabriele Salvatores. Written by Vincenzo Monteleone. Cinematography, Italo Petriccione. Editor, Nino Baragali. Art director, Thalia Istikopoulou. Music, Giancarlo Bigazzi. A Miramax release. 89 minutes. Cast: Diego Abatantuono, Claudio Bigagli, Giuseppe Cederna et al.In Italian with subtitles. Not rated. (If so, PG-13 for adult situations).
In these days of special effects and brutalizing images (even in films for kids), a humane and humanistic movie is a double pleasure. "Mediterraneo, " the latest winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, may not be a classic, but it's good, and there's more to it than meets the casual eye.
Gabriele Salvatores ( b.1952) made a name for himself in theater in the 1970s and in cinema in the 1980s. "Mediterraneo" (1991) comes after "Marrakech Express" (1988) and "Tournee" (1989) in a loose trilogy. The films have very different plots but a strong common thread: the disenchantment of the idealists or militants who, like Salvatores, were a product of the tumultuous, "let's-change-the-world" late 60s and 70s.
"Mediterraneo" is easy to take, yet a bit of history helps. World War II began on September 1, 1939, with the German attack on Poland. By June 1940, the Third Reich had swallowed several countries and vanquished France. On 28 October 1940, Mussolini launched an invasion of Greece from Italian-occupied Albania. In an amazing David and Goliath reprise, the Greeks began to rout the Italians. A worried Hitler invaded Yugoslavia and then Greece (April-May 1941), which was occupied by the Germans and the Italians and in limited areas, by the Bulgarians. The resistance in the Balkans slowed down by five crucial weeks Hitler's plan to invade Russia in May of 1941. Without this delay, WWII might have taken a radically different turn.
The Nazi Occupation of Greece was especially painful, probably only second in harshness to Poland's, a result of Partisan resistance, bloody Nazi retaliation, and the starvation of an agriculturally poor country. The Italian occupiers, with a few exceptions, were neither as savage nor as loathed as the Germans. The Italians, to their credit, were reluctant warriors and rather comic figures who preferred by far the joys of life to the glories of conquest. And in matters of race, mentality and lifestyles, there was and is much in common between Greeks and Italians.
All this is cleverly played up in "Mediterraneo," a movie that was misleadingly advertised as a funny sex romp. It does contain elements of sex and of comedy, but it is mainly a bittersweet commentary on war and peace, with much ethnological-psychological precision.
In June 1941, eight soldiers are sent to garrison a Greek island in the Dodecanese, in the Aegean. The magnificently arid place is baptized Meghisti in the movie, an ironic in-joke as this means "the largest" in Greek. (In reality it is Kastellorizo, a mere speck). The eight are a variant of the "motley group in a closed place" movie formula, yet, at the same time, they are most credible as individuals variously messy, scared, homesick, fed up with the war, prone to operatic histrionics or pretend-heroics, pretty lousy as military, pretty ridiculous in their feathered caps.
Their nominal leader is a former schoolteacher, Lieutenant Montini who reads ancient Greek and is imbued with bookish reverence for Hellenic culture. In practice, the true chief is burly Sergeant Lo Russo, another ironic name for someone who fought Reds and Russians during the Spanish Civil War. But gung-ho as he is initially, and the only professional soldier among those civilians in uniform, the Sergeant is no Fascist. He soon starts to think and act like the others.
With their boat sunk and their radio broken, the Italians find themselves marooned on the island. They believe it is deserted until they find a small population of children, women and old men, the younger men having been taken away by an earlier German garrison. Predictably, the unwilling conquerors fraternize with the locals, are serviced by a professional prostitute left behind by the Germans who had brought her from Athens, (she is ex-Miss Greece, Vanna Barba), and go native. It's a small-scale repeat of what had occurred in Roman times, when, as Horace said, vanquished Greece subjugated her ferocious conquerors.
The film has charm, quietly makes pacifist statements, then adds a coda about post-war, modern disillusions. Its Italian release, coinciding with the Gulf War, made the movie a hit and part of the anti-war movement.
A few (surprisingly few) bits of "Mediterraneo" are more fantasy than realism, like the pretty shepherdess whose features and bare shoulders belong to Italian movie temptresses rather than demure Greek peasants. The score is an outsider's notion of what Greek island music sounds like. But in its essence, the film is no invention : it is based on a book by an Italian sergeant whose regiment quit fighting during WWII and formed a Greek-Italian community on an island. This was not an isolated case either.
The one jarring note comes when a small plane arrives with the news that now Italians are fighting alongside the Allies. This passage of three years comes unexpectedly, since the audience is still thinking in terms of elapsed months. Even so, other happenings and details are intelligently worked in and raise "Mediterraneo" well above its movie recipe.
Director Salvatores handles matters with elliptical elegance,never stretching out scenes or hammering points home. Note how he deals with the Lieutenant painting frescoes in the church, the men getting stoned on Turkish hashish, or the skinny-dipping beauty.
The octet is a perfect microcosm of the Italian occupiers of Greece, and the actors have that special Italian knack of looking passive while in action and energetic while doing nothing.