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The untranslatable language of love

by Kaori Shoji

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin

Rating: * * *
Japanese title: Koreri Taii no Mandorin Director: John Madden Running time: 129 minutes Language: English
Opens Sept. 22 at the Marunouchi Louvre and other theaters

An occupational hazard of writing about film is that over time, one develops two traits: a warped view of history and a warped view of language. This has resulted in the hazy conviction that Nazis spoke to each other in staccato English during the war and that, in the present day, if I tok like zees, cherie, and blow extravagant kisses then it means I can speak French. Irreparable damage. And no job-compensation benefits either.

Nicolas Cage in “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin”

I blame it all on films like zees, I mean this: “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.” Based on the novel by Britain’s Louis de Bernieres, “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” is a beautified, glamorized, Anglicized look at life under Italian/German occupation during World War II on the Greek island of Cephalonia.

Granted there’s the argument that it’s a love story, so history can be approximated (just as in “Pearl Harbor”), but it just feels wrong to hear all those Greeks, Italians and Germans speak one and the same language in various versions of Euro accents. Adding to the confusion is that, though everyone speaks English, the writing (letters, documents, etc.) is in Greek, and these are filmed up-close. When they’re read aloud, they’re read aloud in English. I’m telling you, the mental effort necessary to swallow all this becomes practically, uh, Herculean.

Still, swallow we must and plunge into the honey-golden ambience of “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” because, hey, it’s a love story, so what am I nitpicking about?

The film is directed by John Madden, who has a wonderful track record with period love stories (“Shakespeare in Love”), and it certainly bears his signature all over: slow-moving, delicately lit and brimming with joie de vivre, interspersed with tragedy and death. If we have to have films about wars at all, then let them be something like this, with warm-hearted Italians and beautiful Greek girls who always go about with picturesque straw and/or wooden baskets straight out of a dreamy travel brochure. Not to mention, of course, the occasional sweet mandolin music.

Nicolas Cage plays Captain Antonio Corelli, who has never experienced actual combat and carries a mandolin on his back at all times. He has turned his battery of men into a musical group called La Scala Boys, and they seem to spend most of their waking hours singing Donizetti. Corelli and his men are part of the Italian army that have been stationed on Cephalonia and are totally laid back about it.

Markedly less relaxed are the Germans, smaller in number but clearly more aggressive about the occupation. Corelli, however, wins the trust and friendship of young Nazi officer Weber (David Morrissey). He has less luck with Pelagia (Penelope Cruz), daughter of the local doctor, Iannis (John Hurt), at whose house Corelli is boarding. Pelagia is engaged to the hot-blooded Mandras (Christian Bale), who is heading an underground resistance campaign against the Axis powers.

Pelagia’s own resistance to the dashing Corelli weakens day by day, until she finally succumbs to his passionate confession of love. Almost immediately, Italy surrenders and Corelli and his men are ordered by the Germans to disarm themselves and leave the island. Mandras informs Corelli that this is a trap. Up and down the Greek islands, the Italians are ensured safe passage, then executed by the Germans as traitors. Corelli decides to trust Mandras and launches an offensive against the Nazis that is soon crushed.

This is followed by the slaughter of his entire battalion, but Corelli survives, trapped under another man’s body. Mandras drags him to the doctor’s and he recovers, but he must leave the island as soon as he is strong enough. Corelli and Pelagia bid farewell on a small fishing pier, certain that they will never see each other again.

Despite the onscreen chemistry between the tragic couple, and the sheer delight of witnessing the lovely Ms. Cruz in action, “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” does not have the same resonance as, say, “The English Patient,” another British WWII love story. The latter pulled off rather better the trick of condensing a hefty original novel — here down to 129 minutes — and slimming down the plot. The relationships between Pelagia and Mandras and between Corelli and Weber are crucial to the story but get cut short to highlight the main love affair.

Even Corelli’s mandolin is pushed into the background: There are only two scenes in which he plays the instrument, and then not for very long. So this is what it boils down to: Cruz strolling around on a Greek beach, the skirts of her thin, cotton dress blowing in the breeze, a straw basket hanging from one arm, as Cage gazes at her with rapture. Watch this and you will understand why tourism has taken off on small Greek islands . . .