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'Captain Corelli's Mandolin'

False notes: Bad accents trouble a beautiful island in 'Captain Corelli's Mandolin'

Friday, August 17, 2001

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The real star of "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" is Cephallonia, a picturesque Greek island in the turquoise Ionian Sea, with sandy beaches, mountainous cliffs, sun-splashed summer days and earthquakes threatening the ancient tranquillity of it all. But if it's gorgeous vistas we wanted, we could always watch the Travel Channel, right?

 
    'CAPTAIN CORELLI'S MANDOLIN'

Rating: R for some violence, sexuality, brief nudity, language.

Starring: Penelope Cruz, Nicolas Cage

Director: John Madden

Critic's Call:

 
 

We don't necessarily need Penelope Cruz, Nicolas Cage and Christian Bale as admittedly handsome window-dressing, especially when they're pretending to be -- respectively -- Greek, Italian and Greek. And not always doing it well. For a story about desperate love, broken hearts, adversity, natural and manmade disasters, the power of healing and hope, and the ability to survive almost anything, it left me largely unmoved.

Based on the 1994 novel by Louis de Bernieres (which I have not read, so I will spare you the usual comparison which seems to irritate some moviegoers), it opens in 1940, as Greece is about to be drawn into the thick of World War II. In October of that year, Italy invaded Greece, and Greek men were conscripted and sent to Albania. In November, Italian planes bombed the port of Argostoli, the capital of Cephallonia, for the first time.

One of the wisest, most enlightened citizens of the island is Dr. Iannis (John Hurt), who is teaching his daughter Pelagia (Cruz) to follow in his footsteps as a physician. Although Iannis doesn't approve, Pelagia wants to marry a handsome, unsophisticated fisherman named Mandras (Bale). The doctor suggests they are too young, that she will only be happy with a foreigner, and that Mandras is not her equal.

The couple get engaged, however, and Mandras goes off to war. Despite scores of letters from Pelagia, Mandras never responds. In mid-1941, Italian and German soldiers begin occupying Cephallonia. Enter Capt. Antonio Corelli (Cage), an Italian soldier for whom the war is still being kept at arm's length. Greeted by a German with "Heil, Hitler!" the music-loving Italian responds: "Heil, Puccini!"

Neither he nor his men has seen any action, and they are united in their love of song and zest for life. Corelli ends up being housed with Iannis and his daughter. The doctor agrees to the arrangement in exchange for medical supplies, but the officer's presence rankles Pelagia. At first.

Her disdain ("A brave Italian is a freak of nature," she tells him) turns to love, which presents a new set of complications. She is still engaged to another, after all, and the bloody realities of war soon reach into the heart of the island, as the Germans and Italians find themselves at violent odds.

"Captain Corelli's Mandolin" is from John Madden, director of the Oscar-winning "Shakespeare in Love" which, coincidentally, edged "Saving Private Ryan" for the top prize. Although "Corelli" sheds light on a perhaps little-known chapter of World War II history, this breaks no new filmmaking or romantic ground.

It excels in re-creating the island of the 1940s; the port city of Argostoli was virtually destroyed by an earthquake in 1953, sending the filmmakers to the town of Sami for locations.

The movie, however, fails to create real sparks between the Spanish-born Cruz, who struggles a bit with her English, and the modern, somewhat miscast Cage. Their early courtship consists of staring at each other, across the dinner table, across the beach, across the town courtyard. And too often, pithy declarations ("Love enters by the eyes and leaves by the eyes") substitute for strong dialogue and character development.

The screenplay, adapted by Shawn Slovo from the novel, doesn't explain why Pelagia's love for Madras flourished and then withered. I have a sense that the book fills in the gaps and provides a greater context for the people and for the war, which circles below the water's surface and then emerges like a ravenous shark.

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