Nicolas Cage in: Captain Corelli’s Mandolin

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin

Released in 2001 ▪ Review posted December 8, 2013

“You fall in love with the person, not the body.”

Pelagia (Captain Corelli’s Mandolin)

You would think that the choice between Christian Bale and Nicolas Cage wouldn’t be as difficult for Penélope Cruz as it is in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. Hell, I know a few straight men whose appraisal of this cast’s physical appearance would even put Bale first, Cruz second, and Cage at a distant third.

I’m not saying Nicolas Cage is ugly. What I’m suggesting is that any man compared to a young, tan, shirtless, long-haired, “Greek” Christian Bale may struggle to keep up. It’s a miscasting, and it’s not fair. Realizing early in this movie (even before Nic appears on screen) that Cage would woo none other than Penélope Cruz away from Christian Bale, I braced myself for something deeply flawed and totally unaware of its own shortcomings.

So begins the parsing of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.

First a little history. Traditionally in America (where quality, free education is hard to find), instruction on World War II is cursory and focused mostly on the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Northern Front, and the Holocaust. Ask any U.S. college freshman about the Balkans or northern Africa and you’d be lucky to hear the words “Patton,” “Rommel,” or “fascist.” Greek involvement in the war may come completely as a surprise.

It’s beyond probability that this movie could be as historically accurate as it is, despite being produced by a traditional major studio. The island of Kefalonia is real. It was spared much of the violence of World War II, as it was occupied by agreeable Italians until the armistice with Italy in September 1943. German soldiers on the island, still fighting the Allied powers, sent for reinforcements. The departing Italian soldiers feared the Nazis would send them to camps rather than allow them to return to Italy, and so they declined to surrender their weapons. There was a skirmish, the Italians lost, and, as you would expect with a bunch of Nazis, 5,000 of the 9,000 Italians who resisted were executed. Fact checkers, war enthusiasts, and the generally curious can look here for more information.

In Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Nic is Antonio Corelli, a music-obsessed captain in the Italian army, sent to lead the occupation of Kefalonia for the Axis forces at the beginning of the war. Conveniently, Corelli arrives just as the fiancé of Pelagia (Cruz), named Mandras (a not yet fully famous Christian Bale), leaves to fight in Albania. A muddled love triangle forms.

Though I haven’t read it, I’m confident that the book Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, upon which this movie was based, uses Corelli’s love of music as a metaphor for his tender, peaceful nature. In a book with an ever-present narrator, that works. In a movie, you can’t rely on something so intangible to build character. You don’t have the benefit of interior monologues.

Thus, there are three big problems with Captain Corelli’s Mandolin: the previously mentioned sexiness gap between Nicolas Cage and Christian Bale; the forced inclusion of a mandolin in the plot; and Nicolas Cage’s ridiculous Italian accent.

I’d like to start with the mandolin problem. It’s a problem skillfully addressed by David Mamet in State and Main, which I’ll call “Old Mill Syndrome.” In adapting this book, it would have been best to play down the music metaphor, and let the screenplay and acting communicate Corelli’s tenderness. Unfortunately, the book has “mandolin” in the title, and it can’t be changed because the studio wants to attract fans of the book as painlessly as possible. Since “mandolin” stays in the title, a mandolin must be prominently featured in the movie and the trailers. And so the subsidiaries of Hollywood once again collude to make a bad movie out of a potentially good one. So it goes.

And then there is the problem of Nicolas Cage’s Italian accent. I can’t think of a gentle way to put this, but you don’t hire Nicolas Cage to do an accent for a whole film. It’s not his strength. It ends up sounding like this. He would have been better off taking the same approach as Robert Redford in Out of Africa, where it was decided that having him speak with a British accent for two hours would sound stupid.

The catch here is that Nic’s acting remains believable and good. He’s grounded, and channels his out-of-control tendencies into being out-of-control in love with a local woman who he is required by his job to oppress. Admittedly, it does help Penélope Cruz (who does not attempt a Greek accent, and sounds like a Spaniard who was left on a Greek island in her childhood) seem justified when she chooses Corelli over the much hotter Mandras. For the record, the only things Mandras ever does to Pelagia to dissuade her from marrying him are throwing her in the ocean and not writing her letters.

The history in the film, as well as the direction and suspense-building, are great. It is a wistful look at a rarely discussed part of World War II, and ultimately seems like a loving adaptation of the source material. I was dreading watching Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, but aside from a bad accent and too much forced mandolin, it was totally watchable—a welcome contrast from Knowing, which I watched around the same time. Look for the review of Knowing sometime mid-week.

How was the movie?
How was Nic Cage’s acting?
Good acting—bad accent
Did his performance make the movie worse?
No, it was worse because of the mandolin