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Heart Strings 

Captain Corelli's Mandolin (R)
Universal Pictures

When Hollywood executives gather to discuss a romantic war epic, I imagine they don't spend too much time discussing which story line -- the romance or the war -- should take the forefront. It seems pretty obvious, after all. People go to the movies to see great love stories, not depressing tales of war. Hollywood's wisdom can be pretty well summed up by what director Michael Bay said when asked by Newsweek why he chose to spend so much time on the romance in Pearl Harbor: "Didn't you see Titanic? Without the love story all you have is a sinking ship."

Guided by the same wisdom is Captain Corelli's Mandolin, a movie helmed by the usually sure hand of John Madden (Shakespeare in Love, Mrs. Brown). Madden has plenty of good material to work with here--a genuine historical context, a fine cast, a breathtaking location, and the boundless cinematographic skills of John Toll (Braveheart). But he's managed to goof it all up by using all those goods in service of a trite romance.

The historical setting should be the real drama here, for it provides plenty of story on its own: Cephalonia is a beautiful Greek island, rich with cultural and spiritual tradition. In the 1940s, it was occupied by 5,000 Italian troops. When Mussolini fell to Hitler, the Germans overtook the island and executed all the Italians. The war soon ended, but just as the Cephalonians were restoring their lives, a severe earthquake left the island devastated.

All of these events really happened, and a powerful movie could be made of them. But, in adapting Louis de Bernieres' novel for the screen, Madden and screenwriter Shawn Slovo chose to use the events as a backdrop, focusing instead on the romance between Antonio Corelli (Nicolas Cage), a captain in the Italian army, and Pelagia (Penelope Cruz), a beautiful island nymph who's betrothed to a local fisherman named Mandras (Christian Bale).

Because we saw the movie poster on our way into the theater, which shows Cruz and Cage in rapturous embrace, we know that Pelagia's betrothal to the non-Nicolas Cage character cannot last. The movie spends its entire first act on him anyway, characterizing Mandras as an illiterate, stubborn and rude droll -- but at least he's cute and a really good dancer.

Mandras eventually leaves to fight in the war, and soon the Italians occupy the island. As Corelli is leading his men in their march to the town square, he notices the beautiful Pelagia standing off to the side. He yells to his men, "Hey, check out the hot babe!" (It sounds more elegant in Italian, of course.) That moment pretty much sums up Cage's character -- he's a full-blooded Italian, full of song and dance and red wine and passion. With such attributes, it isn't long until Pelagia is head over heels, island occupation or no island occupation.

Corelli and Pelagia spend the rest of the movie trying to be in love, but they face many barriers, including racism, Pelagia's betrothal and World War II. (Surprisingly, one barrier they don't face is a language barrier; in this movie, everyone -- whether Greek, Italian or German -- conveniently speaks the King's English.)

While we're waiting for these barriers to come down, we do get some history, and those portions of the movie are riveting. It's interesting learning about the Cephalonians, and it's harrowing to recall the German war ethic in WWII. But these portions, fine as they are, are mere props for the love story, which is insulting in more ways than I can count.

Without the love story, all you have is a beautiful island, rich in tradition and historical complexity riveted by a war it had no choice but to enter and an earthquake it had no ability to withstand. To the thinking in Hollywood, that somehow isn't enough.

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