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IN SHORT: 80% atmosphere. 15% unbelievable love story. 5% explosions. [Rated R for some violence, sexuality and language. 125 minutes]
Atmosphere is a term used to describe postcard perfect pictures which, in big screen movies, serve to give the viewing audience a visual feel for the time and place of the story. Sometimes they tell a story. Sometimes they pad a movie out to a decent time. Sometimes, and this is that particular time, they kill a story dead in its tracks.
Cephallonia, an isle of Greece. It is 1940 and war is coming closer and closer. The men of the island are shipped off to fight an Italian army up in Albania. The lovely Pelagia (Penelope Cruz) bids her adoring boyfriend Mandras (Christian Bale) good-bye. Though her father, a cantankerous Doctor (John Hurt) forbids marriage until after the war is over -- he's not talking Albania. The man is smart enough to know that the ultimate enemy lies in Germany -- the pair exchange vows and rings. It is an engagement that is celebrated throughout the night. The next day, it's board the boat to war.
Even as Pelagia mails letter after letter to her man, she hears nothing in return. Her love begins to fade and then, miraculously and mysteriously, Mandras appears at the Doctor's door, clothes in tatters and feet torn to shreds. Mandras' experiences will give our good doctor lots of practice in bodily repair. He'll also do the fade in and fade out routine a couple of more times.
Several months later, Albania looks like a piece of cake. Cephallonia is overrun by the Italians. Mandras heads for the mountains to join up with partisans and the invaders bunk one of their officers in the good Doctor's house. He is Captain Antonio Corelli (Nicolas Cage) leader of the 33rd Regiment of Artillery for the Italian Army. Technically, they're the 33rd. They'd rather be known for their opera club -- every man in the unit can sing (except one. Jokingly, he's called the guy in charge of the pauses between notes) and none of them have fired a rifle in wartime. Corelli's first act on the island is to order his men to look at the "Bella Bambina," Pelagia, seemingly one of two on the island, while he sings her praises.
...and overacts up the wazoo. Cage's Italiano borders on radio stereotype and when he brings the level down a bit, his body flops around as if he doesn't know what to do with it. Wait, it gets worse...
The Italians demand the keys to the City, in surrender. The Elders won't budge, demanding that they will only surrender to a German officer of important rank. German Captain Gunther Weber (David Morrissey) is produced, but the Captain is not important enough, so the town packs up and goes home for dinner. It is here that we began wondering if the wartime romance we were expecting was turning into a comedy. We mention comedy because, as we are introduced to John Hurt's character, the man steals every scene he's in with humor much sharper than anything else in the painfully thin script.
Corelli would prefer to sing a song rather than to fire his rifle. He brings, along with his invading battalion, a bottle of wine, his mandolin and a memory filled with Italian operas and arias which he feels free to belt out whenever he feels like it. She hates him with a passion that, well, he does have lovely blue eyes. OK, so it's a war romance between enemies. Let's define the term "enemies".
The Greeks don't take the Italian Army seriously since their army of 8,000 defeated a much better equipped Italian army of 14,000 up in Albania. As far as the Citizens of Cephallonia are concerned, they Beat the Italians, so War is over. Which means Corelli and Pelagia stare wordlessly across the town square, whatever, exchanging no chemistry at all and declaring their love when there has been not more than a dozen lines of dialog exchanged between the pair. Why don't they speak? It may be that Cage's Italian accent is terrible or that Cruz' Greek accent is nonexistent, as compared to the dozen or two Greek extras in the cast. It may be that whatever made the unspoken love work in the words of the novel from which the screenplay is adapted got lost in the translation.
Or it may be that there are so many picture perfect atmosphere shots dumped willy nilly into the first half of the movie, that we don't give a hoot about the romance that is supposed to be the center of the story. The only character we do care about is the aforementioned comic relief Doctor, who also manages to put across every serious point the film wishes to make. When the Germans finally let loose on the City, the only character whose fate got any rise out of our audience (and no, we're not dropping hints here) was Hurt's.
So, how best to describe a wartime romance in which none of the enemy are the baby-killing, heartless SOB's that we expect? Corelli doesn't want to fight. The German Captain is afraid to fire a gun and two thirds of the occupation occurs without a single "bang". Which is why we have all the rest of the Nazi army to do the dirty work. When the real war comes, it is painfully loud. Once that gets done, there's still the matter of the three way romance to work out. Two hours of film feels like four and our audience was running for the exits as soon as the first end credit appeared.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Nine Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Captain Corelli's Mandolin, he would have paid . . .
We'll say this again about Ms. Cruz. She works very hard to do a good job, as she has in movies from which we expected nothing. She, as well as Cage, was greatly in need of intensive vocal coaching. Cage needed to be reigned in. You shouldn't waste your cash.
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