September 19, 2001 -- "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" is a big, sweeping, old-fashioned love story set on an idyllic Greek island during World War II. While the on-screen romantic chemistry between the stars is less than electrifying, the supporting performances are excellent, and production values are sky high.
Nicholas Cage stars as Antonio Corelli, a romantic Italian musician. He's a soldier, but that is way down on the list of things he really wants to do. He and his fellow troops occupy the Greek island of Cephallonia during World War II. It seems like the perfect spot to get away from the war. There is no fighting to speak of, the weather, scenery, and beaches are great. Their favorite thing is to lounge around on the beach singing Italian opera songs. The locals are less than pleased. There is a funny scene in which the locals agree to surrender, but not to the unworthy Italians, whom the Greeks had recently defeated in a battle at Albania.
Corelli is billeted in the home of the town doctor, Dr. Iannis (played by John Hurt of "Contact"), which is very convenient, because he is smitten with the doctor's pretty daughter, Pelagia (Penélope Cruz of "All the Pretty Horses"). Corelli and the Italians try their best to get along with the islanders, but the brutal reality of the war keeps intruding into the romance. There is also another guy involved in this romantic triangle, Mandras (Christian Bale of "American Psycho"), a local fisherman who is engaged to Pelagia. The war changes Mandras from a carefree youth into a fierce partisan. The movie tries to depict how all the characters respond to the terrible brutality of war. Some are able to retain their humanity.
The broad outline of the story is based on actual events on the island of Cephallonia during the war. The story is based on the popular book by Louis de Bernières. Changes were made in the story by screenwriter Shawn Slovo to ease the difficulty of making it into a film. The film was shot on location in the town of Sami on Cephallonia. The actual historical events took place in the island's capital, Argostoli, but that city has been rebuilt since the war and now it looks too modern for purposes of the film. The set design is impressive and there are some well-staged big-scale military action sequences.
The pairing of Cage and Cruz doesn't work all that well in the film. Cage is a fine actor, of course, but his smoldering intensity and edginess is not at all what is called for in this role. Cruz does what she can with the role, but the romantic chemistry isn't quite working. John Hurt steals the show as the wise doctor. Bale and David Morrissey of "Hillary and Jackie," provide great supporting characters. Morrissey, who plays Captain Weber, a German officer from Tyrol, Austria, finds the carefree attitude of the Italians very attractive, but can't escape his duty to the German army. Bale is very good as the deeply conflicted Mandras. That icon of Greek actresses, Irene Papas ("Zorba the Greek" and "Anne of the Thousand Days"), shines as Drosoula, the mother of Mandras. If only Papas were young enough to play the part of Pelagia. That would have been something to see. Hurt and Papas bring such a dignity and emotional substance to their roles that they overshadow Cruz and Cage.
The story seems a bit slight at first, but there are some real fireworks at the end of the film, based on what really happened at Cephallonia 58 years ago this month. The amount of humor in the film surprised me, a gentle, good natured humor. There is a running joke about a man being nagged by his wife, jokes about the relationship between the Greeks, Italians and Germans and other low-key humor. It works very well on that level. When the gripping tragedy of the war storms in, that part of the film is also effective. The cinematography of the stunning island scenery by John Toll ("Thin Red Line," "Braveheart") is wondrous. According to the film's production notes, director John Madden of "Shakespeare in Love" was trying to downplay the beauty of the island's scenery because it counters the seriousness of the story. If it was truly downplayed, Cephallonia must be one fantastically beautiful island. This film rates a B.
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