Ship of Fools

Color-blind casting is one thing, but Captain Corelli's Mandolin goes absurdly overboard

The social lessons of Captain Corelli's Mandolin, all of them suitable for framing in just about any dorm room, are these: War is bad. Love is good. The Italians love to sing, even when they're supposed to be at war. The Greeks are freedom fighters. And whatever you do, don't turn your back on the Germans, because they love war, hate freedom and never sing at all.

That's about it. After almost a year of production problems and pushed-back release dates, director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love), screenwriter Shawn Slovo and a cast that includes Nicolas Cage and Penélope Cruz have reduced Louis de Bernières' romantic 1994 bestseller about the Italian occupation of a sun-drenched Greek island during World War II to a handful of clichés. This is not to say that de Bernières rivals Tolstoy or Hemingway in the war-and-peace department--he doesn't. It's just that the present moviemakers have eliminated the finer points of his novel in favor of broad strokes. Very broad strokes.

Our setting--the real star of the show--is a rustic Eden called Cephalonia, south of Corfu and north of Zante. Immortalized by Homer, the island is full of earthy fishermen who have for centuries plied the Ionian Sea, and the village elders have been loath to change their ways. Cinematographer John Toll (who won an Academy Award for Braveheart) captures the place beautifully, from its vistas of blue ocean right down to the peasants drinking demitasse in the cafés. If the Greek tourist board isn't thrilled by this robust new vision of Zorba-land, it should be.

On the other hand, the film opens in 1940, so we know from the outset that this Paradise will be lost--at least temporarily. But first, the fun-loving spaghetti-benders come to call. As ethnic stereotyping demands, the Italian artillery company led by one Capitano Antonio Corelli (Cage) doesn't give a collective damn about Mussolini's strategic plans for this scenic outpost in neutral Greece. No, Captain Corelli and his merry band of pacifists spend all their time lolling on the beach with half-naked prostitutes, gulping red wine and serenading the locals in the town square. As luck would have it, the invading Italians are all members of the same opera society, and to them the war is nothing more than a momentary interruption of their budding careers singing Verdi and Puccini. Corelli doesn't even carry a rifle or a carbine. Instead, he's got a mandolin strapped to his back in a knapsack. Somebody call the Symbol Police, and quick.

Guess what. In the third reel, our hero falls in love with a beautiful Cephalonian villager named Pelagia (Cruz). And she with him.

This isn't the smoothest romance in the world, not even after the blissed-out Capitano assures us, "We're Italian! Famous for singing, eating and making love." As it happens, Pelagia is engaged to a fierce Greek partisan named Mandras (Christian Bale), a macho amalgam of beard and bandolier. Her father is the wise village doctor (John Hurt), given to dense aphorisms about tragedy and renewal and, when the need arises, a little kitchen-table surgery. Whenever the drama lags, the good doctor pops up on the soundtrack to impart another gem of local philosophy. Meanwhile, Pelagia's acquaintances include many who don't think it's appropriate to consort with your enemies--no matter how many arias they can sing.

Predictably, there's also a nervous Nazi captain named Gunther (David Morrissey) hanging around the edges of the drama. Make book on it. It's only a matter of time until the Italians' vacation on sunny Cephalonia is put to a sudden end by the sudden outbreak of war. Thus do the movie's featherweight speculations on the nature of mankind come to a predictably bloody climax, followed in short order by a dose of redemption.

What else need we know? That a simple village beauty who's never even been to the mainland can tango like a Las Vegas showgirl? That the Italians are so comically inept at warfare that they have trouble even blowing up an old Turkish bomb left over from the last war? That it's never a good idea to kiss a German, even on the cheek? That the Ionian Islands' long history of earthquakes and massacres knows no end? Or that the island always survives and goes on?

The casting of this blunt soap opera is baffling, to say the least. Those not startled by a rather dyed-in-the-wool American playing a native Italian (Cage may be an Italian-American, but he's no De Niro) may wonder why a Spanish actress is portraying a Greek, and a Liverpudlian (Morrissey) is impersonating a German. Welshman Bale is now a Greek, as is Londoner Hurt. While making the usual allowances for poetic license and dramatic versatility, you may find yourself asking why the movie's only "authentic" major casting, nationally speaking, has Greece's legendary Irene Papas playing the glowering mother of Bale's Greek partisan. By the way, when Italians and Germans invade Greece, everybody apparently converses in English. But then, you probably already knew that. Just as you know that all Italians speak with their hands, all Greeks are named Pete, and all Germans have blue eyes.

 
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