If you believe the history in John Madden’s latest revisionary film (the previous ones being Shakespeare in Love  and Mrs. Brown ), then the Italian Fascists were big-hearted romantics who wanted only to drink wine on the beach and sing Verdi arias. At least this is the case for one Italian soldier, the Capitaine Corelli (played by Nicolas Cage). He doesn’t mean to invade anyone else’s country or point his weapon at frightened women and children, and he feels downright pushed around by those big-meanie Nazis. You can tell that he’s sincere and kindly, because the camera lingers on his large brown eyes as he speaks in thickly accented English (Cage’s accent is the most outrageous this side of Bugs Bunny cartoons). The Germans, on the other hand, actually speak German, and so their evil intriguing must be translated to English via subtitles. Can there be a surer sign of their consummate villainy than the fact that they don’t speak-a the movie-magic English?
Such is the sorry illogic on which Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is, um, erected. The Captain and his men are dispatched to the paradisical Greek isle of Cephallonia in 1940, where they are supposed to secure the perimeter, or something like that. Really, they’re hanging about, flirting with the natives and enjoying the sunny beaches, until the Germans decide what their next move will be. As soon as Corelli marches down his very first Cephallonian street, he spots the “bella bambina” Pelagia (Penelope Cruz, whose own accent doesn’t sound very Greek to me), and announces her presence to his men. They all strut and salute and he smiles a little too smugly. She looks away, demure but obviously interested.
Still the film meanders slowly toward their inevitable clinch, aspiring as it does to that epic WWII romance effect. Based on Louis de Bernieres’ 1994 novel—whose legions of British fans are reportedly eagerly awaiting the film’s opening—Shawn Solvo’s script lays out the details of period Greek village life, but leaves out the source’s multiple narrators (one of whom was a fictionalized Mussolini himself). The focus here is rustic and romantic: characters spend some time preparing and eating local cuisine (and if you watch the Discovery Channel’s promo-tie-in show, a chef will tell you how to make these very same meals!), carrying laundry they wash in the river, and walking along unpaved roads. Everyone in sight is lovely and tanned and besandaled, and, oh yes, one tiny detail, Pelagia is betrothed to the fiery fisherman Mandras (Christian Bale, whose accent is marble-mouthed). He’s painted in a few broad strokes as a simple soul, so enthusiastically convinced that he’s fated to be with his one true love, that he doesn’t think two minutes about leaving her behind in order to head to Europe to prove his manhood in the War. Poor Pelagia, she’s heartbroken of course, and so she spends long hours writing love letters to her beau, pledging her undying devotion and asking him please please please to write her back. Every day, she and Mandras’s mother (Irene Papas) trudge to the post office in their black dresses, and yet not a single letter arrives!
Sad, yes. But when you learn that he hasn’t written back because he’s illiterate and was afraid to tell her, it’s less a tragedy than one of the film’s many overripe plot contrivances—something has to compel her to look again at Corelli. the Italian is her obvious match, so charming and so couth is he—and not a thing like the blustery Mandras, except, of course, for that proving the manhood by warfare business. Corelli, it turns out, is not only a captain, he’s the official translator, able to speak Greek and German as well as his ostensibly native Italian. (This despite the above-mentioned Star Trekian Universal Translator principle that governs the film’s moral hierarchy.) His first duty on Cephallonia is to interpret out loud the Greek town elders’ response to the Germans’ declaration of occupation. He stands on a set of white steps in the town’s center and reads the first words in a big-boomy voice: “Fock-a you!”
No, the expected hilarity does not ensue. But there are odious tensions a-brewing between the peoples. Eventually, this being a movie intensely focused on getting Cruz and Cage together in the dark, soft-floored woods, connections will be made (during filming, there was a rumored offscreen affair, to massage this moment into cinematic climax). So that Pelagia doesn’t look like a traitor, the other locals also warm up to the Occupying Army, including the Single German Officer stationed with them, the klutzy-but-basically-sweet-until-the-big-showdown Captain Weber (David Morrissey), who does speak German-accented English throughout the film (suggesting that he’s not wholly Nazi, just afraid to challenge his superiors when it counts). That time when it counts is the story’s grand climax, and based on an historical event, the massacre of Italian occupation troops on Cephallonia by their former German allies. The film drags you along to this dreadful point by following the slam-dunk Pearl Harbor blueprint, that is, reducing all emotional and political complexities that might have existed in the novel to a sappy love story, to manipulate you into caring who lives or dies. But you don’t. This reduction is so plainly a terrible choice that you have to wonder who, if anyone, is publicly taking responsibility for it.
The romance jumps into gear when, eventually, Corelli does what needs to be done to win over the icy Pelagia: he plays his mandolin. The first character who notices the young man’s gift is Pelagia’s father, Dr. Iannis (John Hurt, who, I like to imagine, is cringing through this silly part, though that’s probably not true). He’s a man given to uttering pearls of paternal wisdom at inappropriate moments, noting, for instance, that Pelagia will be happiest with someone from off the island, rather than the grimly goofy Mandras (it’s obviously better that she date the Fascist officer!). He tells his beautiful daughter, breathless from a woodsy rendevous with the Italian: “When you fall in love, it’s a temporary madness!” Or, again, the doctor tells Corelli, during one of the captain’s few receptive, pseudo-Grasshopper-ish moments (he cocks his head and pauses, as if to listen), “Sometimes it’s better to lose, than to have so much blood on your hands.”
But what else could Captain Corelli’s Mandolin be, other than the frivolous and utterly forgettable movie that it is? Did anyone at any time read this script and think, this is a moving and momentous event and I must be a part of it? Doubtful. The movie is unabashedly a star vehicle, with lovely European scenery and heavy petting between the principals, a pretend historical backdrop, carefully excised politics, and an even more carefully scheduled opening date (after being pushed back from mid-summer), coasting into theaters just behind the wave of blockbusters-that-weren’t. This is a minor tragedy, but very minor, as it’s hard to get worked up about a movie so essentially misconceived as this one. It’s condescending to viewers, to assume that all they want is pap like this. Sure, we all know this is how the game is played, and remember that the major chatter about Shakespeare in Love was Gwyneth’s pink Oscar gown, but still. . . The fact that Captain Corelli’s Mandolin premieres in LA and all the ET and Access Hollywood reporters can come up with are a few red carpet shots of the stars and their new squeezes, well, that’s just dull.