As fascist yet sensual invaders go, apparently none could hope to rival Mussolini's troops, portrayed in Captain Corelli's Mandolin as a veritable conga line of sun-glazed romantics who would much rather eat, sing, and make-a da love than terrorize their vanquished foes. Set on the shimmering Greek island of Cephalonia, an idyllic enclave nestled in the Ionian Sea, Mandolin introduces an Italian conqueror so beneficent that he's survived (and won) battles without so much as aiming his gun at another person. Played with emphatic ridiculousness by Nicolas Cage, whose accent suggests Count Chocula after a heaping bowl of Sugar Crisps, he seems genuinely bruised to learn that his cause is somehow connected to the Nazis, who are very stiff dancers and show little joie de vivre. Based on Louis de Bernières' best-selling 1994 novel, this dubious history lesson has been conceived as an Oscar campaign first and a movie second, with no higher aspirations than serving up middlebrow entertainment with a thin veneer of class. Anonymously directed by John Madden, who led Miramax to its last major Oscar triumph with Shakespeare In Love, Captain Corelli turns the war into a glossy travelogue, where even the bombing runs and slaughter seem part of a grand romantic getaway. Leading an international cast of non-Greeks and non-Italians, Spanish beauty Penélope Cruz stars as the daughter of the island's doctor (John Hurt) and the focal point of a love triangle involving opposing players in the war. When the Greeks gather forces to fight the Italians in Albania, Cruz's politically impassioned and courageous fiancé, an illiterate fisherman played by Christian Bale, volunteers for the cause. By the time the Italians fall to the Greeks, who are subsequently overwhelmed by the Germans, Cruz has presumed her future husband dead. With Greece divided in two by the Axis powers, putting Cephalonia under Italian rule, Cruz's eyes wander to the charming Cage, who wears down her guard through gentle persistence and the intoxicating strum of his mandolin. Bale's loyalty to her and his commitment to freedom-fighting would seem to complicate the situation more than they actually do. Instead of challenging the audience's feelings about Cruz and Cage's affair, Madden turns Bale's passion against him: His political engagement usurps his romantic sensitivity, and he's written off as a cold fish. With that obstacle out of the picture, Captain Corelli is free to deliver mushy homilies about man's common humanity at a time when man's inhumanity was at its most pronounced. Or at least that's how the Oscar acceptance speech might put it.

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