Comandante 2023 Movie Review
Hollywood knows exactly how to play it when it comes to portraying a second world war German officer. Get an actor like Christoph Waltz, stick him in a Nazi uniform, and have him strangle a kitten for fun before the opening credits finish. But when it comes to Italian characters from the same period, you can sometimes sense some cultural confusion kicking in. Surely Italy is that nice place with the gnocchi and olive oil? Hard to imagine they were … fascists?
Comandante, the new film from Edoardo De Angelis, won’t do much to clarify that disconnect, even though it actually hails from Italy and might be expected to do a bit more soul-searching. Naval officer Salvatore Todaro (Pierfrancesco Favino) is very much the friendly face of the Italian war effort. Set for the most part aboard the submarine Comandante Cappellini in the early 1940s, it is a dramatisation of the sinking of the Kabalo, a Belgian ship carrying British war supplies, and the subsequent rescue of 26 shipwrecked Belgian mariners from a watery grave by Todaro and his crew.
Not that the Belgians are particularly grateful: two of them attempt to sabotage their saviours’ vessel while muttering darkly about fascists. In Todaro’s response to this incident, there’s the faint sense that the pair have reneged on a kind of gentlemen’s agreement, as if it’s the height of rudeness to attempt to take down an Axis powers’ submarine during wartime. Todaro is presented as a man so noble he almost seems to misunderstand how war is supposed to work. And perhaps he really was: rebuking a German officer who finds Todaro’s “hate the game, not the player” policy ludicrous, the man reportedly said: “I’m Italian, I have 2,000 years of civilisation behind me.” You can’t help but wonder as the credits roll and it becomes apparent that the film was made in collaboration with the Italian navy, who Comandante is for, and what its agenda is.
But if you’re prepared to ignore that boring little voice in your head that insists on whispering “is this film using a historical case study of one cuddly outlier to launder the wartime reputation of the Italian navy?”, there’s much to enjoy here. De Angelis offers some muscular film-making, with decent action sequences. Tableaux of Todaro’s homelife are rendered in the style of a faintly kitsch Dolce & Gabbana advert: you’re kicking back on an evening with a baby in a crib, your hot wife in pearls and a silk negligée plays the piano, a marble chess set casually set up in the corner. There’s a funny sequence where the Belgians teach the Italians how to make chips. It stops just short of having the submarine surface so the crew can play a game of football on the deck on Christmas Day, but it’s that kind of film.