The Italian patient
For its first 90 minutes, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is a gorgeous-looking, slow-drip love story set on a Greek island against the backdrop of World War II. At roughly the same time the bombs begin to drop in Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor, this distilled version of Louis de Bernieres’ 1992 novel shifts from romantic triangle to the terror and brutality of war. Much like Harbor, it generates a harrowing sense of urgency that dilutes rather than heightens all that came before it.
Mandolin is Mediterraneo (Italian soldiers living la dolce vita in 1941 on a Greek isle) crossed with The English Patient (wounds of love and combat festering circa World War II). Missing in action are the previous films’ bittersweet magnetism and gnawing emotional tension. Mandolin begins and ends with a whimsical bookend involving a man who has had a pea stuck in his ear since childhood. Wedged in between is a historical drama that simply fails to make convincing human connections.
It’s 1940. Dr. Iannis (John Hurt) and his daughter Pelagia (Penelope Cruz) share a home on the idyllic Aegean island of Cephalonia. Iannis, who narrates the film, listens to radio news of the armed conflict on the Continent and warns his daughter not to marry her fisherman boyfriend Mandras (American Psycho’s Christian Bale). “There’s been quakes and slaughter for 2000 years,” he says, “so don’t make any plans. There will be more.” Mandras enlists in the Greek army and Pelagia gets engaged to him just before he goes off to fight Mussolini’s fascist forces in Albania. Pelagia apparently has been so infatuated with the prankster hunk (he tosses her in the sea when she greets him at his pier) that she’s failed to notice he is illiterate. She writes and writes to him with no response, with one year of separation feeling like one hundred.
By the time Mandras returns home wounded, the Nazis and their Italian allies occupy the isle, and the opera-singing, mandolin-plucking Captain Antonio Corelli (Nicolas Cage) is bunking in the doctor’s house. Pelagia resents Antonio at first, but Antonio is a hunk, too; he can read, and his mandolin playing is bewitching. The two soon become attracted to each other as Italy surrenders to Allied forces troops and the Nazis make plans to disarm Corelli and his comrades and ship them back home. “Pray for liberation of the island,” says Iannis, “because then anything becomes possible.” But first there’s blood to be spilled.
Director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) and scenarist Shawn Slovo (who penned the anti-apartheid drama A World Apart) have compressed and altered the novel quite a bit, and have spun a tale of romance, culture clash and betrayal around characters who don’t fully gel. It’s hard to believe that the intelligent, luscious Pelagia is attached to Mandras, and even harder to swallow the miraculous recovery of Corelli, who is at one point wounded so severely that his bones are mended with mandolin wires, but is soon back on his feet.
The acting is a mixed bag with the cast using accented English to denote their nationalities. Cage, a staunch method actor who reportedly shaped his performance in Raising Arizona with Woody Woodpecker nuances and borrowed the voice of Poky (from the Gumby cartoons) for Peggy Sue Got Married, feels miscast as the soldier who wants to enjoy the innocent pleasures of life even amid war. Bale doesn’t make a credible transformation from fisherman to guerilla, while Hurt brings velvet maturity to his role and Cruz smolders with distress and concern.
The nudity is all female, with Cruz baring nipples and a hairy armpit, buxom women romping topless at the beach and Cage exposing nary a butt crack. The postcard scenery is stunning, a key scene in which Aryan racism is discussed in moral versus scientific terms is awkward, and we are told that Italians like to sing, eat and make love, and that Nazis are not to be trusted.
When you fall in love, says Iannis, “it is a temporary madness. It erupts like an earthquake, and then it subsides.” The problem with Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is that the earth certainly moves (a quake does destroy the village), but the overall film is only moderately moving.