Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Film Review: Captain Corelli's Mandolin

It seems I cannot find films other than war-films to illustrate lessons on male-female interactions as I see them.
This is the third war-film I have watched which deserves a fine-toothed comb.

I actually first saw this film many years ago. My understanding of the film has changed a lot in that time.
To summarise, this film (based on the book by Louis de Bernières) is set in Cephallonia, a Greek Island during World War II.
Pelagia is the highly intelligent and beautiful daughter of the local doctor, Dr. Iannis, a widower who is slightly eccentric but very much respected by everyone, especially his daughter who was virtually raised by him alone.

Pelagia is engaged to Mandras (played by the delightful Christian Bale of  'Empire of the sun' - all grown up!), a local handsome fisherman who is illiterate (which I guess is not unusual in that village at that time and is a fact which is relevant only with respect to Pelagia). Mandras is a well-respected man, but as his own widowed mother would proclaim time and time again, he 'never grew up'.

As Italy invades nearby Albania, the men of the village are urged to join the war effort. Mandras promptly does, leaving behind an increasingly exasperated Pelagia who writes him several letters and receives no reply. As becomes clear later on, the only reason he does not reply is his illiteracy, of which she was not aware. She eventually loses her love for him as is declared in her last letter to him before he returns.
Mandras returns a casualty of war despite the Greeks defeating the Italians in Albania. He is nursed back to health by Pelagia and her father.
Pelagia, who is a very principled young woman somewhat rediscovers her love for Mandras during his return stay. However, he takes the next available opportunity to disappear again leaving her for the second time.
During this time, an Italian regiment is posted on the island headed by Captain Antonio Corelli, a seemingly carefree opera-singing, beer-swigging, party animal with a talent for playing the mandolin. To make matters worse for all concerned, the Greeks of Cephallonia have to surrender to the Italians, (and they do this in a hilarious face-saving move in which they decide to surrender instead to the highest-ranking German Officer on the island instead of the Italians, their dearest enemies,  making sure to let the Italians know that they would rather surrender to the German Officer's dog than to an Italian).
Captain Corelli ends up staying at the Iannis' house in exchange for medical supplies.

The inevitable happens. He and Pelagia fall in love.
A process which does not escape the notice of her father, Mandras and Mandras' mother.

But, on the advice of her father, Pelagia does the honourable thing and 'undoes' the engagement to Mandras.

The Italians and their German allies fall out when an unscrupulous German shoots at an unarmed Italian soldier during an armistice. This sees the Italians joining the Greeks in a bitter battle with the Germans which the Germans win. The Italian soldiers are taken prisoner and despite the fact that they were once allies, the Germans shoot the Italians dead.
Captain Corelli is saved by one of his troops (Carlo, more on him later) and is later found alive by Mandras who takes him to the doctor.

Corelli is nursed back to health but uncharacteristically for him, he is increasingly disillusioned by the destruction of war and leaves Cephallonia for good, helped by Mandras to escape by boat in the dead of night, for fear of the Germans.

Pelagia is devastated once again. She goes on to medical school and qualifies as a doctor. But her heartache remains.

Corelli sends her a guitar recording of the mandolin piece he had composed for her, from Italy.
And, eventually, he keeps his promise and returns to her.

(In the book, Corelli and Pelagia reunite when she is in her 60's).

In today's SMP, perhaps Mandras would be seen as the 'beta' guy who went off and fought for his country and lost out to the irresponsible lazy 'alpha' as a result.
But I would put forward a different viewpoint.
Mandras was, before the war a typical enough fellow. Well-liked by everyone, he was clearly in love with his girl Pelagia.
But he never really had time for Pelagia. He became obsessed with the war. He became a bit of a monster. Not his fault: war does that.
But there was more to Mandras: His bad character was only unearthed as the war proceeded.
He had saved Corelli only so Pelagia would 'love him again'. Disingenuous.
He had also ordered the hanging of a friend of Pelagia's for kissing a German officer on the cheek when he promised her he would leave her a grammophone after the war. This girl wouldn't even dance with the German soldier at the local dance - she was too 'true' to her country. But a spontaneous kiss on the cheek of this guy earned her her death at the hands of Mandras who called her a 'whore' and a 'traitor'.
Pelagia dodged a bullet here.

Antonio Corelli
As Pelagia reproached him on more than one occasion, he seemed to take nothing seriously, at first glance. He and his men were always to be found on the beach partying and singing operas. She once said to him, "Why don't you take your holiday on someone else's island?"
She hated the fact that this soldier was all about partying when her own Mandras was suffering gangrene in Albania.
"What is there to sing about?" she angrily asks him.
But there was a serious side to Antonio. Pelagia only found this after she got close enough to him.

The audience of this film, much before Pelagia herself, are given a glimpse into the serious and shrewd nature of Corelli, by his "Heil Puccini" reponse to the German Captain's "Heil Hitler".
It may have seemed comical and frivolous, but one got the distinct impression that two fingers were being cleverly stuck up in the face of Nazism without the German Captain noticing.

Once, he was playing with one of the local children and Pelagia rushed to take the child away from him.
Corellli said to her, "Signora, in times of war, one has to make the most of the innocent little pleasures."
He was right of course.
Never judge a book by its cover.

Pelagia and Corelli
Pelagia was very honourable despite what appears to be disloyalty to the man to whom she was engaged.
Mandras was a bit of a fool, and played an embarrassing practical joke on her the night before he left for the war effort, in front of everyone. There were many strikes against him, I feel.

Pelagia's behaviour around the time she falls in love with Corelli is suitably irrational and illogical but also reveals a woman trying very hard to stay 'honourable'. At one point she points a (unloaded) gun at Corelli. Several times, she 'tells him off' for his behaviour (quite rightly). At the dance hosted by the Italian soldiers in an effort to appease the locals, she dances Tango with another Italian soldier to avoid dancing with Corelli and quite possibly (bizarrely enough) to make him jealous. Even though she didn't want to want him. Cognitive dissonance at its best.

Interestingly, I think Pelagia also demonstrates another golden rule about women. That women are very conscious of their public image. That trait is being lost amongst some younger women nowadays, but these are actually the outliers.
Pelagia is publically embarrassed twice - once by Mandras and once by Corelli. In Mandras' case, it was a stupid, little boy prank which should never have happened - certainly not on the eve of his departure to war. The writing on the wall was there following this prank, I feel. An immature man is the worst consort for a woman. She and her children will always suffer.
In the case of Corelli, Pelagia is publically embarrassed when Corelli tells everyone that the beautiful mandolin piece he has just played is 'Pelagia's song'. Mandras' mother is present at that gathering. Everyone knows that Pelagia is engaged to Mandras. It is humiliating and scary for Pelagia because she is beginning to realise that she is falling in love with Corelli, an enemy of her people.
But at least, in this latter case, it was a declaration of love, of sorts, by Corelli. Pelagia is actually being validated. A man had composed a beautiful piece for her. She just couldn't handle the fact that it was done publically before she had had a chance to sort out her feelings.
Therein the difference between Mandras' and Corelli's public embarrassment of Pelagia: Mandras' prank spelled the end of their marriage before it had begun, Corelli's misplaced display of love led to the consummation of said love the very next day :-)

Pelagia and her father
These two had a wonderful father-daughter relationship. The father was a very wise man whose advice to Pelagia was central to the film. He spotted the waning love for Mandras, and of course the growing love for Corelli in his daughter.
His speech about love being what happens when the 'flames die down' is so true. Pelagia was blushing throughout of course, because it's not the kind of conversation one wants to have with Dad and all...but she needed to hear it.

To be honest, I suppose one could say that Pelagia's father was biased against Mandras from the beginning. Mandras was an illiterate man. Pelagia was on her way to becoming a doctor. Her father was well aware of the 'hypergamy' instincts his daughter was likely to harbour and advised her accordingly. He also always believed that no man in the village was good eough for his daughter (what father doesn't think this of his daughter?!) and that she would end up marrying a foreigner.

When he spotted that his daughter was in love with Corelli, he said to Corelli, "When I met Pelagia's mother, she was actually betrothed to someone else...he almost killed me. I had to lay low for a while..."
Talk about aiding and abeting Corelli!

There is a superlatively moving scene towards the end of the film where she thinks she has lost him in an earthquake at the rubble of their destroyed home, only to find him safe and well nearby. One couldn't help but feel utter relief for this poor woman who seemed to be losing all the men in her life.

Carlo was a member of Corelli's squad. It wasn't particularly apparent to me in the film but he was actually gay. He says to Pelagia at one point that he would protect her if something happened to Antonio. In fact he did more than that: he saved Antonio's life by shielding him with his body during the massacre by the Germans.
Talk about bravery and honour.


Anonymous said...


Now I must see this film.

Thanks, SpaceTraveller.


Spacetraveller said...

Oh Bill, it's a GREAT film!

Sure, it's got its fair share of 'romantic'/girly bits but it also has quite a lot of 'action' to suit masculine tastes too :-)

I believe it is available on Youtube in several little parts.