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Out of the Painful Past

Filming of the WWII romance 'Captain Corelli's Mandolin' stirs up dark memories for a Greek island.

November 26, 2000|DAVID GRITTEN | David Gritten is a regular contributor to Calendar

SAMI, Cephalonia, Greece — The Italian soldiers disembark from troopships moored beside the quay, fall into formation and march up the main street of this picturesque island port. Greek villagers lining the path eye their arrival with a mixture of wariness and puzzlement.

It is 1941, World War II is exacting a terrible price in lost human lives all over the globe, and the sight of a foreign landing force is a sobering one. But despite the gravity of the situation, there is also enough humor about these invaders to force a smile to the most reluctant lips. For one thing, their ranks are completed by eight young women, smartly and colorfully dressed, strolling behind the last unit, twirling their parasols as they glance appreciatively at the pretty Greek town; these are the prostitutes who accompany the Italian forces on their travels.

One Italian platoon, in particular, would make observers wonder about the seriousness of this war and this invasion. It is headed by a smart young captain with doleful eyes, carrying a mandolin slung over his shoulder. As he passes a beautiful young woman in the crowd of watching Greeks, he shouts: "Bella bambina at 2 o'clock! Eyes right!" In unison, his men snap their heads in her direction. One crosses his eyes at her, another blows a kiss, a third rolls his eyes lustfully, while a fourth goes into a Charlie Chaplin walk. She looks astonished.

It's a pivotal moment in "Captain Corelli's Mandolin," a largely British-produced movie conceived on an epic scale and adapted from Louis de Bernieres' 1994 novel that took Britain by storm. This, after all, is the scene where the lovers first meet.

Nicolas Cage is Corelli, the jocular, music-loving Italian officer involved in the occupation of Cephalonia, a tranquil Greek island. Spanish actress Penelope Cruz plays Pelagia, the young Greek woman he spies in the crowd; she is the daughter of village doctor Iannis (John Hurt), an educated man with a skeptical view of war and history. Pelagia is engaged to Mandras (Christian Bale), a local fisherman with Communist sympathies, who has disappeared after going off to fight with other Greek partisans. The story is about whether this love affair can survive in the turmoil of global war and personal rivalries.

"When I first read the script, I was very emotional," Cage recalled after completing the "eyes right" scene. "I don't know why, I was moved by the story's romantic aspects. It seemed to me to be unlike anything I'd done before. I've normally avoided period pictures. I've felt inherently I was a contemporary personality. So I didn't know if I would be anachronistic or not. That had something to do with it, the challenge of wanting to try it."

Reflected Tim Bevan, one of the film's producers: "It's like 'Doctor Zhivago,' an amazing love story set against an epic backdrop. The book isn't cinematic, but I think emotion is what makes epics. If you have big emotions, you can construct a movie."

Big is the operative word for this production. On this day, Sami is filled with more than 300 military men: 100 soldiers, 90 sailors and 50 airmen from Greece's armed forces are playing the invading Italian soldiers. Various Europeans, including the British, play German soldiers. In the harbor are two minesweepers and two landing craft, all lent by the Greek government. It makes for a spectacular re-creation of 1941.

Yet the mood among Greek onlookers, especially older ones, is tinged with melancholy. This, after all, was not a happy period either for the island's natives or for the Italians who invaded them. The re-created scenes have also elicited mixed emotions from those old enough to remember the beauty of Cephalonia before a 1953 earthquake leveled it.

"You can't travel very far on this island without someone telling you what they saw," noted Kevin Loader, another of "Corelli's" producers. "That includes Greeks working on the film. One guy helping with our accommodation saw his 13-year-old brother shot by the Germans. A cafe owner here watched 570 Italians being killed below his veranda. The bodies lay there for eight days. He said he couldn't get over the smell--he can still smell it. The villagers took the bodies away, threw them into wells and sealed them. Now the Italians want the bodies repatriated but the villagers are superstitious about it. I gather those discussions are still going on."


De Bernieres' novel threw light on an unexplored facet of World War II: the occupation of Cephalonia by Mussolini's Italian forces, who were supplanted by German troops in the later part of the war. (When the Germans arrived on the island in 1943, they executed thousands of Italians.)

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