Rhapsody in Blah

5 minute read

Walking to work on the set of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin dressed as a Nazi officer, actor David Morrissey accidentally frightened a group of elderly Cephallonians who momentarily mistook him for the real thing. The anecdote shows how deeply the Greek islanders are still haunted by the German occupation of 1943. It’s the kind of story that might have appeared in the Louis de Bernières novel on which the film is based: innocently amusing, with an underlying sadness. The author’s talent for marrying comedy and tragedy in the story of two lovers facing down the brutality of war kept his charming novel on best-seller lists for over two years. And it’s the vital ingredient missing from what could have been an equally charming movie.

Set on the postcard-pretty island of Cephallonia during World War II, the film centers around Pelagia (Penélope Cruz), a young Greek living with her father and following in his footsteps as a doctor. While her fiancé is off fighting the Italians in Albania, Italy takes over the island and Pelagia finds herself reluctantly falling for Captain Antonio Corelli (Nicolas Cage), a boyish flirt who’s a dab-hand at the mandolin and is smitten with her from the start. Together they walk a trail of broken hearts, war wounds and promises of forever, while the villagers quietly chastise Pelagia for sleeping with the enemy. When the Nazis finally invade Cephallonia, Corelli, whose loyalty now lies with the Greeks, is branded a traitor. He has to flee the island and Pelagia is left pining.

As Pelagia, Cruz is the embodiment of the fiery free spirit Hollywood demands of Mediterraneans. And she wears it well, balancing sexiness with sweet girlishness. One moment she’s staring, wide-eyed and innocent, at the captain from across a dance floor; the next she’s inspiring jealousy by performing a sweaty tango with one of his men. With her precise body language, Cruz expertly transforms Pelagia from love-struck girl to lovelorn woman. Young Pelagia strides boldly with arms swinging, filling the space around her. Her older self is more withdrawn, her steps more elegant, her arms usually folded.

On the other hand, Cage as Corelli is frustratingly inconsistent. At times, his natural cockiness is perfect for the playful, confidently charismatic captain. At others, his strained Italian accent and chronically over-active eyebrows turn his attempts at humility into sarcasm. The more in love he’s meant to be, the less sincere he seems.

In De Bernières’ version of the love story, Pelagia and Corelli exchange harmless barbs, which track their romance by growing more and more flirtatious. And most importantly — considering the circumstances — they make each other laugh. In director John Madden’s version, though, Pelagia is unrelentingly angry, not once cracking a smile at Corelli’s jokes. It’s difficult to believe that a woman normally so joyous would choose this man over her fiancé, Mandras. Played by Christian Bale (American Psycho), Mandras is endearing, if a little immature. He’s passionately devoted to Pelagia (while Corelli goes skinny-dipping with prostitutes) and more honorable than most. After discovering that his intended has given her heart to Corelli, Mandras still treats the captain with respect — and, in the end, heroic generosity.

In fact, it seems that not even war can bring out the worst in people. On the page, the trauma of having their lives torn apart makes some people crazed with anger, others numb with despair. It turns men into rapists (Mandras among them) and women into victims, giving humanity to the characters by revealing their dark sides. On screen, the only villains are the Nazis who charge in, destroy homes, kill villagers and quickly disappear. Blaming the Germans for all the tragedy appears to excuse everyone else from the imperfections of human nature.

The exception, and by far the most complex character in the film, is German captain Günter Weber (played by Morrissey), who befriends the men in Corelli’s regiment and later has to order their execution. A good-natured man obliged to murder those he cares for, Weber goes through cycles of confusion, denial and torment. His ordeal is hard to watch but it stamps him as a real person.

By denying that kind of conflict to any of the other characters, Madden — who directed the Oscar-laden Shakespeare in Love — and screenwriter Shawn Slovo succeed only in sanitizing them: everyone is as quirky, jolly and resilient as everyone else. Instead of exploring how good and evil can coexist within a person — and how the horrors of war can upset the balance between the two — the film is lazily split into the Good and the Bad. With characters so one-dimensional, it’s impossible to care about either their happiness or their sorrow. Despite a fine cast and an accomplished director, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin just doesn’t hit the right notes.

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