Captain Corelli's Mandolin
review by Gregory Avery, 17 August 2001

Captain Corelli's Mandolin turns out to be an attempt at an old-fashioned romantic epic, the type of thing David Lean used to pull off all the time, sometimes with varying success (i.e. Ryan's Daughter, which Penelope Gilliatt likened to the Hedy Lamarr movie Ecstasy blown up to the proportions of The Fall of the Roman Empire). After watching some of this movie, though, I began to wish that Lean were still around so he could take charge of this one.

In a sunny seaside Greek village in 1940, the daughter (Spanish-born actress Penélope Cruz) of the local physician (U.K. actor John Hurt) becomes engaged to one of the local boys (U.K./U.S. actor Christian Bale) just as Fascist Italy declares war or Greece. The fiancé goes off to fight, disappears, comes back, then takes off again to join the partisans (gee, he's no fun) just as the Italians roll into town.

Among them is Capt. Antonio Corelli (Italian-American actor Nicolas Cage), who signals his good intentions right away when he first spots the physician's daughter, Pelagia, and order the men in his garrison to salute by saying, "'Bella bambina' at two o'clock!" He not only loves opera (the men under his command are required to sing in his self-formed opera club), soulfully plays the mandolin (which is slung over his back, in a sack), and professes never to have fired a gun in his life (!), but he's billeted with the physician and Pelagia. After organizing a goodwill dance in the village square to winnow down the last of the locals' resistance to their occupying forces, Antonio and Pelagia finally succumb to each other's charms, after which Mussolini's government falls and the Italian Army is ordered to disarm and place themselves under the command of the Nazis.

The picture seems to have fallen under the same fate that befell All the Pretty Horses, another Miramax co-production, in which the powers-that-be, after having made the movie, couldn't decide just how they wanted it to end, so they simply hammered and pounded away at the footage. How much of a movie there was to begin with is debatable, since the dialogue includes lines such as, "There's going to be a war. Terrible things happen in war", "There have been many massacres. There will be more.... Don't make any plans.", and "I want to lie across the road so you can't leave." The first hour is merely torpid, enlivened by the occasional half-nude group frolic on the beach, impromptu outbursts of singing, and Corelli heroically taking it upon himself to detonate a floating mine the size of a Buick which has washed ashore on the nearby beach. The plot keeps the characters played by Cruz and Cage apart for an hour, and by the time they finally get together, we don't have any time to care about them one way or the other as the picture plunges into its calamitous second hour, which is nothing less than an abysmal mess: battle sequences where you can't tell who is bombing or shooting at whom, a mass murder which has a risible dramatic twist to it, more shootings, a lynching, and even an earthquake. The movie not only loses track of two of its main characters, who vanish without explanation, but it also loses track of Corelli's mandolin, which only happens to be the central metaphor (civility and beauty amidst chaos and ugliness) for the whole story, and there are some glaring historical errors, such as the reporting that Mussolini surrendered to Allied authorities. (Mussolini fled Italy after being ousted from power by his own government, which then quickly tried to organize an Italian republic before the Nazis came crashing in. He then briefly returned to Italy, only to be strung up on a lamp post by his own countrymen and killed.)

Penélope Cruz performs well, particularly in her scenes opposite the towering Irene Papas (the filmmakers at least got one genuine Greek performer to appear in the film), but she seems to be withering under the pressure to become a Major Hollywood Movie Star. Nicolas Cage plays Corelli with a mellifluous Italiano accent, which takes a little getting used to at first. There is nothing phony, though, about the way he uses his smile, his gaze, his gestures, and sometimes his whole body to express a genuine and fervent appreciation of life and beauty. What happens to his character should be a lot more affecting in the film than it is (though readers of Louis de Bernières' novel, on which the film is based, should be aware that the ending in the film is different than the one in the novel), but by the time its conclusion arrives the picture has become excruciating.

When David Lean was filming Ryan's Daughter on the coast of Britain, the film's studio, MGM, changed ownership, and the new president, Jim "Smiling Cobra" Aubrey, sent a representative to shut Lean's production down. Lean met with the representative, listened to what he had to say, nodded, waited until the representative went away -- and then went right ahead and made the picture exactly the way he had planned to all along. Lean had two Oscar-winning pictures under his belt by that time; John Madden, who directed Captain Corelli's Mandolin, has one (Shakespeare in Love), and one can only speculate as to whether or not he tried to tell people where to get off while he was trying to make this picture.

Directed by:
John Madden

Nicolas Cage
Penélope Cruz
John Hurt
Christian Bale
Irene Papas.

Written by:
Shawn Slovo

R - Restricted
Under 17 requires
parent or adult




  Copyright © 1996-2005 by Nitrate Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.