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Captain Corelli's Mandolin: Love in a strife-torn milieu

LOVE IN the times of war is probably sweeter than it is in the times of peace. Turmoil and turbulence create their own irresistible yearning for a warm embrace or a passionate kiss. In the midst of all the booming guns and lethal bullets, the human heart searches out for a moment of love. Perhaps, the world's greatest love stories have happened in times of strife.

And film-makers have never missed an opportunity to dramatise such pulse-pounding events, such bitter-sweet romances that sometimes literally emerge from the barrel of a rifle.

Recently(late 2001), we had at least two movies talking about the most wonderful of man's emotions under such gloomy skies. Why, ``Pearl Harbour", is one. The other is Vietnamese. Called, ``The Golden Key", it is set during the last days of America's adventurism in North Vietnam, where a simple farming community stood up to and drove away a mighty army.

Closely following these is John Madden's work set in the dark days of 1940 on the breathtaking Greek island of Cephalonia, where a bunch of soft Italian soldiers, under Captain Corelli, is stationed. ``Captain Corelli's Mandolin'' as the title of the picture suggests in no uncertain terms captures the plight of a battalion which has never seen action, and which would rather hear its commander play the instrument and keep apologising to their unwilling hosts for being there at all.

Captain Corelli (Nicolas Cage) charms his men and the civilians with his kindness, love of opera, and hatred of war. Billeted at the house of a doctor (John Hurt), a humanitarian and religious sceptic, Corelli wins the elder man's respect and the adoration of his daughter, Pelagia (Penelope Cruz), although she is betrothed to Mandras, a handsome but illiterate village lad (Christian Bale) who has taken to the hills as a partisan. War then takes its terrible toll.

Based on a best-selling novel by Louis de Berniers (it has sold 1.5 million copies till date, and remember the final scene in "Notting Hill'' where Hugh Grant is reading a copy of this book), "Captain Corelli's Mandolin'' would of course have purists crying hoarse about their favourite passages or characters being cut out of the frames. But a dense tome like Berniers' cannot be accommodated in a film if it has to stay within the limits of one's attention span.

But Madden's movie works with its superb direction and fine photography. If a stunningly beautiful Penelope Cruz with the Mediterranean locale as her background enriches the very spirit of a poignant tale of agony and ecstasy, Nicolas Cage has apparently brushed up his Italian to sound and seem absolutely one from a country that, despite Mussolini's terror and tantrum, had earned during the war the reputation of being fond of wine and women, albeit in a very pleasant sort of way. Madden brings this out most effectively in the genteel mannerisms of Cage and his boys.

Madden told a Press conference at Tokyo in August 2001 that he felt ``incredibly lucky to have found Cruz, or that she existed. She does seem to me to have an extraordinary quality that all great actors have to have, which is to be able to convey emotion in silence which has to do with letting herself be transparent to the camera, letting the camera into her. I think she is extraordinarily artless in what she does. There is no artifice her acting is very simple, very true and very felt..."

John Hurt as the village doctor and Cruz's screen father is mesmeric, leaving none in doubt that Madden had made it a point to polish each one of his characters. Finally, when we see Cruz herself trained as a doctor, there is a sense of marvellous fulfilment, a feeling that might not have been so strong if Madden's old doctor had been carelessly picturised.

John Madden with such hits as ``Shakespeare in Love'' and ``Mrs Brown'' has been quite successful in transiting from the small screen to the big one. His features examine in a very interesting sort of way how personal, often intimate, relationships are shaped by tragedies like war. The complexity of the Cage-Cruz love has been analysed to suggest that it was the Axis march and destruction that ultimately nurtured the affection between these two.

Probably, you needed the cruel uncertainties of a war to bring them closer to each other, and, at the same time, take Cruz away from her fiance.

(This story appeared in The Hindu dated October 12 2001)

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