As I was taking in "Captain Corelli's Mandolin," I couldn't help
thinking of two bits of advice that I got early on; one from my
high school social studies teacher, the other from an older friend
and mentor. The first and less important is that political alliances
are temporary. According to Mr. Pompa back in 10th grade,
difficult as it is to believe given our great relationship with
England today, we went to war with the UK twice and were it not
for the fact that both our countries have McDonald's outlets,
there's no telling when we'd be battling it out again. The second,
and one which served me well over and over and over is: forget
flowers and chocolate. The way to a woman's heart is with music.
What does all this have to do with a picture about a romance that
occurs during World War 2? Absolutely everything.
John Madden's movie, based on Louis De Bernieres' novel and
set amid John Toll's picture-postcard photography on the
smashing Greek island of Cephallonia, opens in 1940 as the
Italians, far better suited for wine, women and song than for war,
are suffering setbacks while advancing in southeastern Europe
under Mussolini's orders. A smaller Greek army has pushed
them back back into Albania but a force has nonetheless landed
with the help of Hitler's Germans on the island of Cephallonia,
and for a time even the Nazis under Captain Gunther Weber
(David Morrissey), are chilling out as they watch Italian Captain
Antonio Corelli (Nicolas Cage) and his men singing Puccini and
Verdi, enjoying the sun, the sand, and the Greek women. While
Corelli sets his eyes on the daughter of Dr. Iannis (John Hurt),
Pelagia (Penelope Cruz)--who is engaged to Greek resistance
fighter Mandras (Christian Bale)--outside forces are ominous.
Italy, which had been a reluctant ally of Germany, has
surrendered to the Allies, and Germany--none too pleased by
this while rightly convinced that the Italian troops on Cephallonia
are about to turn their weapons over to the Greek resistance--are
about to reverse their affiliation with their confederates to the
south with extreme prejudice.
"Captain Corelli's Mandolin," then, is, like "Pearl Harbor," both a
war story and a romance, more realistic than Michael Bay and
Jerry Bruckheimer's summer blockbuster in the courtship
department but quite a bit less flashy in scenes of combat.
Shawn Slovo's screenplay gives the best lines to John Hurt in the
role of Pelagia's astute ol' dad, a veritable fortune cookie of
wisdom about love, life and medicine. His learning must come
strictly from experience since he couldn't possibly raise the
money to acquire books--in one scene he's shown getting paid
for medical treatment with a live chicken. (Sounds like more than
most of our HMO docs deserve, doesn't it?) Iannis tells his little
girl not to marry Mandras not because he's an American psycho-
-he's not, he's Greek and he was born on Cephallonia--but
because he doesn't know how to read and he's of a lower social
class than the ambitious young woman. Iannis also knows from
experience that there's a difference between love and being in
love--the latter being what happens in the beginning when the
earth movies while the former occurs during the next forty years
when you're shopping for Pampers and washing the dishes.
I haven't the foggiest idea how these different groups
communicated with one another in real life, because Mr. Pompa,
my 10th grade social studies teacher, never told us about
Cephallonia, but all the folks in John Madden's picture have a
dandy time speaking in English while maintaining their special
European accents throughout. Nic Cage has no problem with his
Italian inflection and really looks as though he's playing that
mandolin that he carries around on his back. Remember what I
said in the beginning about how serenading women is better than
giving them chocolate and flowers? In the movie's best scene,
Pelagia is about to stomp away from Corelli--after all, he's the
enemy--when the Italian whips out his instrument and strums
away. She's transfixed.
"Captain Corelli's Mandolin" is not a great romance and not a
great war movie, though it tries to combine to two genres in the
way that major combat fare ("The Bridge on the River Kwai,"
"The Longest Day," "Saving Private Ryan") wouldn't think of
doing. As summer entertainment, though, it provides some
spectacular photography which you can take in from your air-
conditioned location without suffering Cephallonia's August heat.
Copyright © 2001 Harvey Karten