“Captain Corelli’s Mandolin,” an adaptation of the best-selling novel by Louis de Bernieres, exploits the perfectly boring Hollywood formula. The film parades good-looking big-name actors, highlights the colorful traditions and scenery of the Mediterranean, and attempts to teach us a lesson about love and life in the time of destruction.
Sounds good, right? Then we hear Nicolas Cage, dressed as Captain Antonio Corelli, bellowing “Bella Bambina, 4 o’clock!” at Penelope Cruz the second he steps onto the island, and that one moment gives away the rest of the movie, except for the random tidbits that do not fit into the story anyway.
The plot of the film follows Pelagia (Penelope Cruz), a young and educated woman in the ostensibly divine, but cataclysmic Greek island of Cephallonia. Her father, Dr. Iannis, is the town physician and an overall village wise man.
Cephallonia enters World War II abruptly, and Pelagia’s betrothed, Madras (Christian Bale), sails out for war in a patriotic frenzy. The quiet village life is disrupted as the young Cephallonian soldiers are killed, and Italian occupation troops storm the island.
The Italians, however, are not interested in the atrocities of war or in Mussolini’s politics. They prance around the island singing, drinking, picking up women, and frolicking on the beautiful beaches. Antonio Corelli (Nicolas Cage), the mandolin-playing captain, is the chief of the whole operation.
The Cephallonian folks treat the Italians as enemies at first, but the laid-back ways of the two groups mesh well, and they become amicable. Captain Corelli’s puppy faces and mandolin playing also (surprise!) win Pelagia over, although their love is doomed when the Italians surrender to the Allies. As the Germans prepare to take over the island, the Italian troops side with the island soldiers for a counter-attack, only to fire up a chain of destruction and carnage.
The film is not bad, despite the rap it suffered from people who loved the book. It is certainly lifted above the line of mediocrity by the stunning backdrop of water and rock formations, the history of what happened in this small and remote stage of World War II, and the elegant, soft-lit profile of Penelope Cruz.
But director John Madden does not let “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” strike the right emotional chords. Despite the film’s length, the plot does not develop and crescendo, making it impossible for the audience to be drawn into the story. When Dr. Iannis gives his daughter a gun, it feels inappropriate, because danger seems so far away from the serenity of the island. And when Mandras (Christian Bale) goes off to war, we do not weep over the lovers’ separation. This is Mandras, who amuses himself by tying Pelagia’s dress strings to a chair and laughing at her when she tries to get up to dance with him. He is too brash and war-hungry to be the hero of a romance film; he definitely does not meet the standards of the intelligent and beautiful Pelagia, so the audience is indifferent when they part.
Part of the problem is the script. It has no catchy phrases or delicious, quotable conversations. Dr. Iannis spouts occasional pearls of wisdom, but they feel forced into the movie.
“Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burnt away,” says Dr. Iannis to his daughter. It seems he could have said something more pertinent, considering Pelagia has not yet had the time to see if there would be anything left over when the temporary madness of being in love passes. Whether it is being in love or love, what little Captain Corelli and Pelagia have to say to each other is unromantic or cliched.
Then there is the problem of how those lines are delivered. Cage and Cruz act well, but their affected accents shroud talented acting. I am no expert on accents, but I wished Cruz’s character would stay silent, and I wondered why Cage was trying to be a Benigni-inspired Italian in Greece when he was best as a pathetic alcoholic in Las Vegas.
I also wonder why the film did not use more native and respectable actors like Irene Papas, who plays Mandras’ mother. The Italian soldiers in the movie point out how Germans think they are the superior race — does Hollywood too think itself superior? Why not make a more authentic movie where people on Greek islands speak in Greek instead of in English with a Greek accent?
I suppose it comes down to the fact that audiences are too lazy to read subtitles in movies, and any such film as proposed above would end up in the “weird foreign movies” category.
So this film may be for someone who is lazy. It will let you kick back and take in some beautiful people and landscape, but you will not take away any thought-provoking ideas, just a dull disgust at the atrocities of war and the lukewarm fantasies about love in the Greek isles.