Cinema Signal:

. "Captain Corelli's Mandolin"

Here's a film that's not as good as it might have been but better than the negative press it has received, which has unfairly doomed it to severe losses at the boxoffice. It's the kind of romantic melodrama that the Italians are so masterful at and, if it were cast the way they would have done it, it would have realized its full potential. In this form, however, it's not a bad evening's entertainment.

On analysis, its deficiencies stem from wedging as American an actor as Nicolas Cage into the role of an Italian and as British an actor as John Hurt into the role of a Greek. No doubt this film would not have secured its financing if it were truer to its ethnic characters, so this is what we have to live with. The business of putting a movie together.

The story is about how World War II affected the inhabitants of a small and colorful Greek island, Cephalonia. Here, as in most European cities and villages, the people are laid back, warm, and profoundly political. They take sides, and they are far more sympathetic to the Italians than to the Germans. So, when the town's doctor, Iannis (John Hurt) and his beautiful daughter Pelagia, who have one of the best houses on the island, are told that they will have to house an Italian officer they are glad, at least, that it's not a German.

That occupier turns out to be Captain Antonio Corelli (Nicolas Cage) who is more the leader of a male chorus than of a band of soldiers. It seems that all in his unit are music makers as well as potential fighters. They are dressed as soldiers, they have some of the mannerisms, but most of the times we see them they're either singing or romancing. Not untypical of some Italians I've seen and known and not immediately endearing to Pelagia who is engaged to a handsome, headstrong boy of the town, Mandras (Christian Bale), a fisherman who answers the call to guerilla duty to defend his town and country.

Soon, however, the warmer and more sensitive side of Captain Corelli becomes noticeable to Pelagia, especially when he plays his mandolin, which he strums with delicacy and musical magic. By the time he plays and sings a song he writes for Pelagia, the two are hooked together for life. But the little matters of her betrothal and the war does get in the way.

Since she is studying to be a doctor, first at her fathers side then more formerly, we see that her intellectual capacity is far beyond the simpler but well meaning Mandras, meaning that marriage to him would not be founded on solid ground. A mandolin playing Italian who demonstrates understanding and deep love for her is the only choice she can make.

Meanwhile, in the background, the Germans are taking over the occupation from their supposed allies, the Italians, leading to the realization among the Italians that they're not being treated properly and that their partnership on military and strategic grounds are not reliable. As the war progresses, the relationship between the powers appears to shift until the factions clash. Eventually, the town is savaged by the marauding German troops with the Greek guerrillas, led by Mandras, joining the Italians in defensive maneuvers. It's not always clear during the tumult who is doing what to whom, but the overall effect of wartime confusions and devastation is adequately conveyed. The thing that is carrying us through all of it is the outcome of the relationship between the two lovers.

For that, see the movie. You won't be wasting your time if you have a taste for what is described. Penelope Cruz is well cast for the setting and for the needs of the role. One might object to the overstated fuss being made over her by the Hollywood press at the moment, and one might have serious doubts of her acting ability from some recent performances, but here she is exotically beautiful and very much up to the part.

Cage does his best but he's a bit lumbering and uncomfortable. Smart enough not to try for too much of an Italian accent, he suggests one more than attempts to convince us that he has one. And, with good chemistry with Cruz, he gets us through the cultural miscasting sufficiently to allow enjoyment of this visually colorful production directed by John Madden ("Shakespeare in Love").

John Hurt is masterfully costumed and made up to convey his Greek residency and, for the most part, his town medic and mentor is endearing enough to also allay criticism for cultural deficiency. His character is so wise and understanding that, but for him keeping the good values on the right side of everyone's impulses, the joys of the film might not have been possible. He's an elder statesman of the acting profession who plays the elder statesman of the Greek town and again demonstrates how good he can be, Greek or not.

On the other hand, Irene Pappas is properly Greek as Mandras' mother, Drosoula in a somewhat rare outing in an American, non-classical film.

Estimated cost: $57,000,000. Projected U.S. boxoffice: $25,000,000.

Rated M, for Musical.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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