Ship of Fools

Color-blind casting is one thing, but Captain Corelli's Mandolin goes absurdly overboard.

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Captain Corelli's Mandolin
The social lessons of Captain Corelli's Mandolin are these: War is bad. Love is good. The Italians love to sing, even when they're supposed to be at war. The Greeks are freedom fighters. And whatever you do, don't turn your back on the Germans, because they love war, hate freedom, and never sing at all.

That's about it. After almost a year of production problems and pushed-back release dates, director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love), screenwriter Shawn Slovo, and a cast that includes Nicolas Cage and Penélope Cruz have reduced Louis de Bernières's romantic 1994 bestseller about the Italian occupation of a sun-drenched Greek island during World War II to a handful of clichés.

Our setting -- the real star of the show -- is a rustic Eden called Cephalonia, south of Corfu and north of Zante. Immortalized by Homer, the island is full of earthy fishermen who have for centuries plied the Ionian Sea, and the village elders have been loath to change their ways. If the Greek tourist board isn't thrilled by this robust new vision of Zorba-land, it should be.

On the other hand, the film opens in 1940, so we know from the outset that this paradise will be lost -- at least temporarily. But first, the fun-loving spaghetti-benders come to call. As ethnic stereotyping demands, the Italian artillery company led by one Capitano Antonio Corelli (Cage) doesn't give a collective damn about Mussolini's strategic plans for this scenic outpost in neutral Greece. They spend all their time lolling on the beach with half-naked prostitutes, gulping red wine, and serenading the locals in the town square. As luck would have it, the invading Italians are all members of the same opera society, and to them the war is nothing more than a momentary interruption of their budding careers singing Verdi and Puccini. Corelli doesn't even carry a rifle or a carbine. Instead, he's got a mandolin strapped to his back in a knapsack. Somebody call the Symbol Police -- and quick.

Guess what. In the third reel, our hero falls in love with a beautiful Cephalonian villager named Pelagia (Cruz). And she with him. This isn't the smoothest romance in the world; as it happens, Pelagia is engaged to a fierce Greek partisan named Mandras (Christian Bale), a macho amalgam of beard and bandolier.

Predictably, there's also a nervous Nazi captain named Gunther (David Morrissey) hanging around the edges of the drama. It's only a matter of time until the Italians' vacation on sunny Cephalonia is put to a sudden end by the outbreak of war. Thus do the movie's featherweight speculations on the nature of mankind come to a predictably bloody climax, followed in short order by a dose of redemption.

The casting of this blunt soap opera is baffling, to say the least. Those not startled by a rather dyed-in-the-wool American playing a native Italian may wonder why a Spanish actress is portraying a Greek and a Liverpudlian (Morrissey) is impersonating a German. Welshman Bale is now a Greek, as is Londoner Hurt. By the way, when Italians and Germans invade Greece, everybody apparently converses in English. But then, you probably already knew that.

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