Directed: John Madden.
Cinematography: John Toll.
Screenwriter: Shawn Slovo.
Based on novel: Captain Corelli by Louis de Bernieres.
Music: Stephen Warbeck.
Editing: Mick Ausdsley.
Cast: Captain Antonio Corelli: Nicolas Cage. Pelagia: Penelope Cruz. Iannis, Pelagia’s father: John Hurt. Mandras, a partisan: Christian Bale. Mandras’s mother: Irene Pappas. Mandras’s mother Drosoula: Irene Pappas. Günther Weber, the “good” Nazi: David Morrissey. Piero Maggio: Carlo. Mr. Stamatis: Gerasimos Skiadaresis: Mrs. Stamatis: Aspasia Kralli Kokolios: Michael Yiannatos. Velisarios, the Strongman: Pietro Sarubbi. Father Arsenios: Dimitris Kaberidis. Eleni: Viki Maragaki. Young Lemoni: Joanna-Daria Adraktas. Older Lemoni: Ira Tavlaridis. Lemoni’s Mother: Katerina Didaskalou. Dimitris: Emilios Chilkis.
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is based on Louis De Bernieres’s best-selling novel, Corelli’s Mandolin (1994), a sprawling narrative whose historical background and complexity of themes are impossible to capture in film. Yet, the movie, placed in the context of the book, by revisiting the Italian occupation of the Ionian Islands during the Second World War, allows the viewer a chance to re-evaluate, recall, judge, and draw illuminating conclusions from an account of those tragic days.
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, shot in its entirety in the Greek island of Cephalonia, is a splendidly photographed romantic/war story, both on the personal level, and a chapter of the war itself. In his 2001 DVD commentary, John Madden, director of Shakespeare in Love (1998), explains that, in order to capture local color, he had to build an entire village for his sets, not wanting to damage private dwellings when in the war scenes he had to demolish it. Numerous locals were used for the crowd scenes, and actual locations where World II battle episodes occurred were researched methodically. The film covers a period of great interest in Modern Greek history, the Italian Occupation of the Seven Islands and the years following, including the earthquake of 1953, which destroyed the island. That was a period when Greece was invaded and occupied by the Italians and Germans after a successful war in Albania in 1940-1. Against this backdrop, the love story develops: an Italian captain, Antonio Corelli, is quartered at the house of local doctor, Dr. Iannis, and soon develops a liaison with the doctor’s daughter, Pelagia, already engaged to a Greek fisherman, Mandras. This forbidden love thrives in the middle of the war, and is rekindled after the Italians are massacred by the Germans following the Italian capitulation in 1943. Corelli, who survives the massacre, is treated by Pelagia’s father, and helped to escape to Italy. Years later, after the earthquake of 1953 (which the film shows), he returns and finds Pelagia still loving him, and they are re-united. The story is quite appealing on this romantic level, but the film also offers scenes where the Italians, Germans, and Greeks intermix in social events, flirting or dancing together, and sharing experiences such as treating the ill, or witnessing the explosion of a mine. More significantly, the film features some of the battles between the united forces of Greek partisans and Italians fighting a losing battle against the Germans, who prevail and subsequently execute the captured Italian soldiers. To understand the film, it is necessary to visit the historical period it covers, and also what the book lays out for the film to absorb as material and to follow.
The Italian troops did invade the Greeks Ionian Islands in May, 1941, after the Albanian front collapsed, following Hitler’s invasion of Greece in April the same year. Several Italian army regiments from the Sixth Division, Acqui, stationed at the Headquarters in Corfu, occupied the Seven Islands–Corfu, Paxoi, Lefkada, Zakynthos, Kythyra, Cephalonia, and Ithaca–and the occupation forces numbered in the thousands, with approximately one regiment stationed at each island. Small German units were placed in some of the islands (in Cephalonia and Corfu, for instance), to safeguard the German interests in case of an Italian collapse, anticipating what was actually going to occur two and a half years later.
The de Bernieres novel is quite conscious of Italian influences on the islands, and the historical facts it furnishes, though rather generously borrowed from existing sources are by and large accurate. The novel is quite ambitious: it embraces not only the Venetian past of the islands, but also their entire history since antiquity, especially the history of Cephalonia, one of the most representative cultures of those islands. Dr. Iannis, a major character in the story, is engaged in writing that history, albeit in fictional style, thus enabling the reader through this dramatic device, to gain some knowledge of what seems a remote part of the world. De Bernieres uses other devices to set up the action of the novel against historical facts: one of these is the shifting of point of view through monologue. Some chapters in fact serve that purpose, interrupting the action to provide the point of view external to the storyline, but vital to the theme: Chapter #2, for instance, called “The Duce,” reveals the inner thoughts of Mussolini as he was about to start his campaign against Greece. A little later (Chapter #5) we are given, again through monologue/stream of consciousness the thoughts of Metaxas, the dictator/prime minister of Greece, famous for having said “No” (OXI) to Mussolini. One relatively early chapter (#14) gives through this device a touching account of Gracchi, the honorable Italian Ambassador to Athens, who had to deliver Mussolini’s ultimatum to Metaxas, fully rendering his abhorrence and shame for the treachery of his leader. Several chapters (4, 6, 10, 15, 17) introduce the thoughts of one of the main characters, “L’Omosessuale,” or Carlo, who functions as the voice of the Italian soldier that fought the losing war in Albania and, indirectly, the voice of the author. Though numerous other characters are introduced through this device, there are four basic characters in the story (as in the film): Dr. Iannis, Pelagia, his daughter, and Captain Antonio Corelli, and Mandras, Pelagia’s fiancé, whose narrative voice gives the reader the background of the war in Albania from the Greek point of view.
Perhaps the most important episode in the novel is the emotional involvement of Pelagia, a patriotic young woman, with a foreigner, despite her inner conflicts. Captain Corelli is an enemy, who is also humane, civilized, unwilling to occupy a foreign land, and fully conscious of his guilt in participating in the vile act of the Italian occupation. He is a rather ordinary man, whose one ambition is to become a mandolin player who one day will be in a professional concert, playing in an orchestra, “Vivaldi and Hummel, and even Beethoven.”1 Corelli (bearing the name of the famed Italian violinist and composer, Archangelo Corelli, 1653-1713) is presented in the novel as the epitome of a civilized man. The humanity of the Italians, as presented by de Bernieres in his book and the cultural affinities between them and the Greeks are the basis for the common bonds that develop between these characters, especially between Corelli and the understanding Dr. Iannis and his excitable daughter Pelagia. The other Italians, especially the homosexual and heroic Carlo, are also given sympathetically. In fact, as de Bernieres observes in his “Author’s Notes,” the Acqui Division generally behaved “reasonably well” in the Ionian Islands, despite the admitted Italian atrocities elsewhere during the war and the occupation.2 In fact, the whole two and a half year period that elapsed under the Italians in the Seven Islands was seen rather as an idyllic interlude, where the worst crimes of Italian soldiers was cavorting on the beaches with the Greek prostitutes, whereas the Germans who followed them, were the ones responsible for the murder, pillage and brutalities that devastated Cephalonia and the other Ionian islands.
The film seeks out the main points of the book and emphasizes the idyllic backdrop of the island and the Greek and Italian cultural affinities. Director and writers explore similarities between the two peoples, but do little to avoid the book’s pitfalls in giving the actual conditions the war imposed on the local populations, showing Cephalonians in perpetual festive moods, whether dancing or walking in litany behind the island’s Holy Relic of St. Gerasimos, their patron saint. Once or twice, the film attempts to capture the Greek resentment, when Captain Corelli arrives with an Italian contingent as an occupation force in Cephalonia. Here he presented as noble-minded but a bit weak (as in the book), for he is not a fighting man. He understands cultural ties with the people he is subjecting and he behaves as a friend rather than an enemy. Dr. Iannis (well played by John Hurst) speaks out, almost directly to the movie audience, of how the Greek islands and the Greek people have survived despite earthquakes, wars, and centuries of other calamities. Still, the doctor at once recognizes Corelli as a kindred spirit and welcomes him when the latter is quartered in his house, in exchange for medical supplies from the Italians, thus unwittingly encouraging a romance to blossom between him and his daughter.
Soon things change, however, for the Italians in Italy capitulate to the Allies, Mussolini is overthrown, and, as a result, the occupation forces of the Ionian Islands must withdraw. But they do face German treachery, and, in the film (not in the book) they join the Greek partisans and together they fight the Germans, though in the end they are slaughtered by the Germans, who had promised to give them safe passage. In the film, the massacre is small-scale, compared to the massive atrocities described in the book, but the film director, John Madden explains in his DVD commentary that he did film the scene in the actual location of the executions. Corelli is almost killed in the massacre of the Italians, but one of the Nazis, Günther Webber, with whom he had become close, saves him during the coup de grace, for even a Nazi can become a reformed human.
The movie has cut out much of this material, but it still offers a visual feast of Cephalonia, one of the jewels of the Ionian Sea. John Madden here gives us two lovers separated by war, but those are two lovers whose emotional and cultural affinities bring them back together at the end. Whether entirely true to history or not, the film does its honest best to be an informed part of history, despite the shortcomings of films that have to capture, in a bird’s eye-view, a complicated story and to simultaneously provide a philosophical commentary on history. The book invites you to forget the cruel and inhuman past. So does the film. The king that was bred in these islands—Odysseus—knew the minds of men and saw their cities. With Homer overseeing the narratives and events, Madden and Bernieres, and perhaps the Italians, and all the others—with the Greeks in the mix—re-live and re-capture the past in the present.
1. De Bernieres, Louis. Corelli’s Mandolin. (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), 185.
2. De Bernieres, 436.
De Bernieres, Louis. Corelli’s Mandolin. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.
Dimaras, K.T. History of Modern Greek Literature. Athens: Ikaros, 1975.
Ebert, Roger. “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin,” Chicago Sun Times, August 17, 2001.
Rondoyiannis, Panos. History of the Island of Lefkas. Athens: Etairia of
Lefkadian Studies, 1982.
Woodhouse, C.M. The Story of Modern Greece. London: Faber and Faber, 1968.
(Reproduced from The Encyclopedia of Epic Films (2014), in condensed form. Permission granted by Rowman & Littlefield)