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Mediterraneo: an Italian Film Still Worth Watching
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2009-11-24 08:04:14
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In the process of preparing a course on Italian Film, I watched once more the film Mediterraneo which had its debut in 1991, winning the Academy Award for best foreign film of the year. The first time around I did not particularly like it. I found it a bit too superficial for my taste; it seemed to confirm the usual stereotypical caricature of the Italian soldier. This time around, after fifteen years or so, I discovered some hidden messages in the film, one of them being the anti-war character of the film.

The setting is World War II when Italian and English navies, a year after the entry of fascist Italy in the war on the side of Germany, were fighting for control of the Mediterranean sea, what the Romans called Mare Nostrum: our sea. The film takes place on the island of Kamtellorizo. The Germans had been there before but have left taking the men of the island prisoners. The local Greek orthodox priest explains later to the invading Italians that they have committed atrocities. That is the reason why at first the village is uninhabited. The locals had assumed that the fascist Italians would be similar to the Nazi Germans.  And this is the first message: the Italians may not make good soldiers but that may well be because their humanity does not allow them to imitate the pitilessness of the Germans.   

And who comprises the misfit Italian platoon sent to a small island in the Aegean sea, Dodekanesos huddled against the Turkish coastline, for four months of lookout duty? They include a lieutenant who likes art, a macho sergeant, a farmer accompanied by his beloved donkey Silvana, and other weird types. Anticipating an attack by the English they take all sort of inept precautions. Then they see bombing on the horizon and come to the realization that the Garibaldi, the ship which would pick them up later on, has been sunk by the English. To make matters worse, their radio transmitter also fails. The platoon, is practically forgotten by the other combatants in the Mediterranean sea.

A few days later, mysteriously the villagers reappear. They have watched the Italians’ initial behavior and have decided that they can accommodate them, despite the war. The two Mediterranean people seem to like each other recognizing their common cultural origins rooted in Greco-Roman civilization. Their sunny nature soon appears and dancing, Greek-style ensues and the Italian soldiers make themselves at home in this idyllic island. Two soldiers who happen to be brothers befriend a lovely Greek woman shepherd, who believes that three is the perfect number for some sexual fun and diversion. The sergeant takes up Greek folk dancing and the others visit the local prostitute who lends her services to them on scheduled days. One of them, a shy virgin, actually falls in love with the overworked prostitute and at one point threatens to shoot his fellow soldiers if they continue to frequent her. The local priest asks the lieutenant to restore the murals in his church, and the lieutenant complies.

Every story, like life itself, has a beginning, a middle and an ending. When we compare the beginning and the end of the movie we get the second important message: The opening scenes in the film show a group of people with little if anything in common brought together by capricious fate. The ending shows a group of friends who have learned gradually to share their lives. Little by little they find new lives. Some become goat herders, the lieutenant finds his talent for fresco painting using his eleven soldiers as models for Christ and other saints. The farmer finds another donkey to get attached to and the one who fell in love with the local prostitute actually ends up marrying her. They all forget their initial forced identity as fascist soldiers and become part of the islander community.

Eventually the island’s male population returns to reclaim their wives and the Italian leave the island in a rescuing English ship. The one who has married the prostitute hides in a barrel and remains part of the community. As the Italians are taken aboard the English ship, one of the English officers remarks sardonically to another: those Italians, they are incredible. And here is another message which brings one back to Zorba the Greek teaching his over rational English partner how to preserve his humanity and sanity by simply dancing and forgetting while dancing his insoluble problems. That is to say, Homer has still something to teach Socrates and Plato. I have changed my mind about this movie, eighteen years later, with the world in the midst of scores of local wars, it is still worth watching. It teaches the viewer something about the reasons of the heart of which reason knows nothing. 


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Thanos2009-11-24 18:53:44
like you I watched the film when it first came out and I have to admit that ...I didn't really like it, but ...obviously I need to watch it again!

Emanuel Paparella2009-11-25 00:10:00
Indeed, Thanos, that often happens, it is not the book or the movie that has changed but that we have changed and grown wiser in the meantime. How did Shakespeare express it? Maturity is all.

Thanos2009-11-25 21:36:15
You are right!!!

Marco Andreacchio2009-11-28 02:25:40
Hearty thanks for the engaging review. Yes, Socratic philosophy never put poetry away!

But why associate Socrates and Plato with phenomena that deserve being associated with the instrumental logic of a technological Age such as our own?

As for Homer, there is much austerity in him that is absent from the characters of the movie as you describe them. These seem to live at the feet or in the shadow of a lost tradition--something that, admittedly, is still much better than living in the dazzling limelight of an Age that has thrown that tradition away.

But, now, that tradition stands or falls precisely with Plato's recovery of what will be called, "Theological Poetry." In other words, our tradition retains, at its heart, a Platonic interpretation of Poetry as civil stage for the philosophical or truly free life.

The irony is that during WWII precisely the England of Churchill retained the strongest national sense of the truly creative tradition of Europe--while Italy was barely saved from utter shame by an underground resistance of intellectuals of various denominations, and of course by the farmers (i contadini), who, best of all, retained the customary ways of antiquity. And, yes, that is no small thing in the face of the greatest eclipse of antiquity that came on the wave of a Zeitgeist of global aspirations.

All the best,

Emanuel Paparella2009-11-28 08:27:25
Yes, but there is another side to this coin: and it is the view of antiquity of a Mussolini? Did he not aspire to the resurrection of the Roman Empire, did he not call the Mediterranean se "mare nostro" and did he not see himself as another Caesar?

Marco Andreacchio2009-11-28 23:13:03
The tradition I was referring to is not that of Caligola and Nero, but that of Plato and Cicero. It is thus a tradition of prudence and civil courage, rather than one identifying justice with power.

We should be able to agree that no return to the philosophical tradition to which belong Plato and Cicero is compatible with a return to Caligola (if only mellowed down as a result of a Christian upbringing).

According to Cicero it is better to live only one day as a philosopher than to live one hundred years as a fool;

according to Mussolini, the Machiavellian fool, it is better to live one day as a lion than to live one hundred years as a sheep--with the understanding that the philosopher is a sheep.

The Fascist's appeal to antiquity is mediated by a peculiarly modern "futuristic" stance, i.e. by his nihilistic love affair with death: antiquity is regarded as the symbol of one's might, rather than as model of civility.

Otherwise, one may appeal to Imperial Rome, no less than to God, or to any "idol" whatsoever, for the sake of concealing one's own anti-philosophical self-love. Of course, this does not prove that the object appealed to is inherently inadequate, or that its return is not to be welcomed; it merely shows that people can lie, or that we tend to be that which we really live for, rather than words devoid of substance (sine re).

Do we agree on this much?

Maria Padilla2009-12-02 03:13:35
I loved that movie Proffesor Paparella, I didn't know you had not seen it in so many years....

Reasons of the heart2012-04-05 07:55:16
"It teaches the viewer something about the reasons of the heart of which reason knows nothing." That line suffices pretty much the make-up of the film. I think I shall watch this about 10 years from now, to see if I can catch something peculiar.

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