Based on the best-selling 1994 novel by Louis de Bernieres, "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" is a sweeping romance set against the backdrop of the Second World War, specifically the Italian occupation of Greece. Beautifully shot in the lush vistas of the Mediterranean, employing a script that captures the essence of the novel, ably supported by a number of strong performances, and skillfully directed by John Madden ("Shakespeare in Love"), "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" is the film that "Pearl Harbor" should have been.
The year is 1940 and war is spreading across Europe, leaving no country untouched. On the small and tranquil Greek island of Cephallonia, the young men of port city Argostoli mobilize to confront the forces of Mussolini, which have conquered Albania and are poised to invade Greece. Among the men leaving for war is a fisherman named Mandras (Christian Bale of "American Psycho"), who leaves behind his fiancée Pelagia (Penelope Cruz of "All the Pretty Horses"), the beautiful daughter of the town's physician, Dr. Iannis (John Hurt of "Contact"). Unfortunately, as the war drags on, Pelagia hears no news from Mandras, and the hundreds of letters that she writes to him go unanswered.
Fast-forward to the following year, and Greece is under Italian occupation, thanks to military support from Nazi Germany. Cephallonia has become a key Italian outpost and sees an influx of men and weaponry, much to the chagrin of the island's residents. With a shortage of space to house Italian troops, officers are billeted at homes around the island, and Dr. Iannis is no exception. He and Pelagia reluctantly open their home to Captain Antonio Corelli (Nicolas Cage of "The Family Man"), a conscripted officer whose disposition defies their expectations, as he is a kind and gentle man passionate about music, with a mandolin, instead of a rifle, slung over his shoulder.
At first, the interaction between the occupiers and the occupied is strained, as centuries of Greek-Italian animosity must be overcome. But gradually, the two sides warm up and develop a fragile camaraderie, with Corelli and Pelagia among them, who fall in love. Unfortunately, such bliss is short-lived, as Mussolini's dictatorship is overthrown and Italy surrenders to the Allies. The Germans, concerned about the loyalties of their former allies, move in to take control of Italian-occupied territory, as well as to supervise the disarming and repatriation of Italian troops. Unfortunately, there is suspicion that the Germans have other plans for dealing with 'the Italian problem'. Thus, Corelli must decide between leaving his newfound love behind and being granted 'safe passage' back to Italy, or to stay on Cephallonia and help defend the island's residents against an imminent German invasion.
Today, on the island of Cephallonia, there are memorials dedicated to the Italians who came to the island as an occupying force and ended up as unexpected allies when the tide of war changed. With its prime location in the Mediterranean, Cephallonia was of key importance during the Second World War, which Germany was not ready to part with following the fall of Mussolini. Concerned that Italian guns would be handed over to the Greek resistance, the Germans began disarming their former allies in exchange for promises of safe passage, while quietly bringing in reinforcements. The Italians stationed on the island opted to resist and began a bloody campaign to defend Cephallonia against the Germans. Unfortunately, the would-be defenders found themselves outmatched by German mechanized and air units, and surrendered after nine days. Within hours of their surrender, the Italians were rounded up and executed, a massacre that was allegedly carried out on Hitler's express orders. In the end, it is estimated that about 8,000 to 10,000 men were slaughtered in such a manner, with only 34 survivors who would live to tell of the horrors they witnessed.
Like "Pearl Harbor", "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" crafts a romance around a historical event during the Second World War. However, instead of relying on tired clichés, simplifying the moral complexity of the conflict into a simple 'us vs. them' mentality, and focusing on the pyrotechnics of war, "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" layers multiple points-of-view and moral ambiguities in a story about people who find themselves caught up in catastrophic events out of their control. There are no easy answers in the plight of Corelli and Pelagia, which intensifies the emotional resonance of their star-crossed romance. In addition, the plight of all the characters touch on universal themes, as they each represent a different facet of humanity in the face of such calamity: some will find it easier to turn away and ignore what they know in their hearts is morally wrong; others will initially turn away, only to have second thoughts when it is too late to act upon them; and only a few will have the courage at the onset to face the challenges posed by what they truly believe in. We may not always find ourselves caught up in the calamity of war or natural disaster, but the need for fortitude remains the same whenever the external forces we are subject to create a rift between one's obligations and one's desires.
Performance-wise, Cage is affable as Corelli, and though his character occasionally borders on caricature, he remains credible as a soldier who is not entirely at ease with his presence as a conqueror. In addition, he shares sufficient chemistry with Cruz to make their growing attraction believable, which is crucial in this type of story. 'Spanish enchantress' Cruz, whose Hollywood career has been growing by leaps and bounds since her Hollywood debut in "Woman On Top" last year, acquits herself quite nicely as a woman who finds herself torn between two very different men. David Morrissey ("Hilary and Jackie") does a decent turn as a German officer who also feels uncomfortable with his uniform, yet lacks the courage to stand up for his convictions. As Pelagia's other suitor, an almost unrecognizable Bale provides a decent contrast to Cage's Corelli. Finally, British veteran actor Hurt offers a strong supporting turn as the sagacious catalyst for the emotional maturity of Corelli and Pelagia.
When the "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" novel was published in Britain in 1994, it remained on the best-seller lists for over three years, and sold enough copies to be in one out of every twenty British households. Likewise, when the filmed adaptation was released in the United Kingdom earlier this year, it quickly conquered the box office, beating out the likes of "Traffic" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon". With the chemistry of Cage and Cruz in a well-directed romance of universal appeal, there is little doubt that the epic quality of "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" will also conquer these shores.