And now for the other film nominated for an Academy Award for 1991's "Best Foreign Language Film," the one that eventually beat Raise the Red Lantern for the Oscar: from Italy, Gabriele Salvatores's Mediterraneo. It's not by any means a bad film, nor, I hasten to add, is it especially wonderful. Like Giuseppe Tornatore's Cinema Paradiso, which I reviewed in these pages two years ago (after it won the same award in Hollywood) and which resembles it structurally, Mediterraneo is a memory film, an unapologetically sentimental retrospective not without its share of incidental beauties and numerous examples of lively, ebullient acting. The filmmaking is accomplished, the storytelling is clear and unobtrusive, and the photography - capturing the evanescent climate of the Greek Islands and the preternatural effervescence of the Aegean - is often spectacular. But oh, is it ever simple-minded.
Not to sound too much like Harry Lime in The Third Man, but the argument can be made that, in movies as in other media, historical adversity is the artist's best friend and inspiration. Certainly that was what characterized and set apart the great Italian directors many of us grew up with - Fellini, De Sica, Rosellini, Antonioni - products of Europe's post-war tristezza, who drew from their memories not easy reassurance, but the instinct to ask difficult questions. Today, with Italy lifting its head economically (and the lira no longer the joke it used to be) the world must contend with kinder, gentler Italian cinema - and with the likes of Salvatores. (It should be added that Mediterraneo also won Italy's prestigious "David di Donatello" award before sweeping in America, proving that standards are scarcely higher there than here.) The 41-year-old Salvatores is still canny enough, as Tornatore was in Cinema Paradiso, to model his film on Fellinian mnemonic devices derived generally, though not exclusively, from Roma and Amarcord. The result is attractive, benign kitsch - and no great compliment to Fellini's skills.
Set in 1941, eight Italian soldiers and a donkey arrive on the "smallest and most distant" island in the Aegean, their four-month mission to occupy it in the name of Benito Mussolini. Among the soldiers, there is a lieutenant, Montini (Claudio Bigagli), a dilettantish artist who initially narrates the story; the ruminative orphan, Farina (Giuseppe Cederna); boorish sergeant-major Lorusso (Diego Abatantuono), the undesignated leader of the troop; animal-loving Strazzabosco (Gigio Alberti) and his pet donkey; plus two clownish brothers and a miserable soldier who's called "The Deserter" because he'll do anything to get back to his pregnant wife in Italy. Upon landing on the island and walking over its barren, unpaved streets, they gaze at a wall, where graffiti in Greek reads: "Greece is the tob of Italians."
Soon after, their battleship is destroyed (it's never made clear how - whether by mines, submarines, aircrafts, or whatever), leaving them stuck on the island with no communication with the outside world. Then, almost by magic, the soldiers discover a Greek community and immerse themselves completely, shedding their military uniforms and attitudes. The Greek Orthodox priest (Luigi Montini), who speaks Italian and says of Greeks and Italians, "One face, one race," becomes a friend. His dictum will be repeated later by a Turk, who steals their valuables after getting them high on hashish.
A sultry Greek prostitute named Vasilissa (Vanna Barba) invites the men over as clients; all enter except the chaste Farina, who falls in love on sight, recites classical Greek poetry, and later marries her. In fact, the only touching aspect in Mediterraneo is Farina's wooing of this prostitute. The most affecting moment comes when, with the most delicate uncertainty, he asks her why she chose the oldest profession, and she asnwers: "My mother was a whore. My grandmother was a whore. My sister is a whore. Logical?" And he nods.
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The men spend three years on the island (which is hard to believe as Mediterraneo is deliberately filmed as an extended summer holiday). After the war ends, a British ship collects and takes them back to Italy. Most of them return hoping to create what amounts to a brave new Italian society. The contrived coda has the lieutenant returning to the island many years later as a disenchanted old man, only to find a widowed Farina accompanied by Lorusso. The three smile, embrace, drink a toast, and remember. Mercifully, the end titles arrive just in time - before a ballad in italiano is launched.
That epilogue has the phoniest ring to it, too. The three ex-soldiers stoop and mince like beginning acting students attempting Willy Loman. Their old-codger make-up, especially under a brilliant blaze of Aegean light, looks about as real - and appetizing - as platters of artificial, plastic pasta such as cheap restaurants regularly place on their display windows, as much to engage the ignorant as to scare the bejesus out of more polished patrons. Only the aquamarine sea emerges from Mediterraneo in all its incandescent glory, and for any who doubt the majesty and power of that timeless stretch of water, who could do with a reminder of what British musicologist Donald Francis Tovey termed the sparkling Homeric seas, this undeserving Oscar-winner may actually be the year's best summer pick. It is certainly no more, though no less, than that.
Directed by Gabriele Salvatores; written by Vincenzo Monteleone; with Diego Abatantuono, Claudio Bigagli, Giuseppe Cederna, Claudio Bisto, Luigi Montini, and Vanna Barba.
In Italian with English subtitles. Opens Friday.