Captain Corelli's Mandolin is what I'd call a moving-picture postcard, a chance to visit the island of Cephallonia without having to actually go there, and at a fraction of the cost. Movies don't get enough credit for servicing us armchair travelers. Myself, I was happy to put an "X" next to "Cephallonia" in the mental notebook I keep of all the places I've seen but not been. And although the name Cephallonia sounds like something out of a Marx Brothers film, it in fact refers to a turquoise-and-amber paradise located off the coast of Greece, where mountain goats graze stray blades of grass and photogenic peasants do the same thing they've been doing for the last 2,000 years: eat, drink, sleep, dance, make love. Do peasants like these exist outside of movies? Perhaps, but with fewer teeth.
And, I hope, better lines. Adapted from a beloved novel by Louis de BerniÃres, Captain Corelli's Mandolin wants to remind us of The English Patient ' an epic love story set against the backdrop of World War II. Caking his tongue with cannoli, Nicolas Cage is the eponymous Corelli, an Italian soldier stationed in Cephallonia just as Mussolini is about to surrender to the Allies. That brings in the Germans, who demand that the Italians turn in their weapons and, when they refuse, slaughter thousands of them. This is the historical fact around which BerniÃres built his historical fiction. Corelli, an irrepressible lover of wine, women and song, falls in love with the beautiful Pelagia (PenÃlope Cruz), who's engaged to Mandras (Christian Bale), an earthy peasant who might as well be called Zorba.
In the book, I've read, Mandras starts off as a Greek partisan and winds up a crazed, brutish Marxist. Meanwhile, the Italians are the most life-affirming Fascists you'll ever meet. (Corelli and his men, all of them opera buffs, spend most of their time singing Verdi and Puccini.) Rather than embroil themselves in political infighting, director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) and scriptwriter Shawn Slovo have boiled everything down to a battle between poetry and politics, Corelli representing poetry and Mandras representing politics. In movies, poetry always wins, of course, but victory comes at a steep price in Captain Corelli's Mandolin. And the price would be even steeper if Madden knew the first thing about how to stage a battle scene. I couldn't tell who was winning or, for that matter, who was who.
Though an Italian American, Cage is miscast as Corelli, and not just because of the wobbly accent. All the accents are wobbly, especially Cruz's, which tries to filter Greek-accented English through her native Spanish. (Where's the young Meryl Streep when you need her?) No, the problem with Cage is that he isn't the force of nature we expect Corelli to be. (Where's Roberto Benigni when you need him?) Corelli isn't so much a character as a set of national characteristics, and that goes for most of the characters, whatever their nationalities. But, to paraphrase Truman Capote, that's not writing, it's stereotyping. That Captain Corelli's Mandolin manages, at times, to overcome all these problems and engage our interest is a tribute to cinematographer John Toll's pretty pictures, which belong in a scrapbook.