SUN, 24 SEP 2000 17:46:38 GMT
AIM Athens, September 24, 2000
When I discovered for the first time Louis de Bernieres "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" (Minerva Editions, 1995) I could have never imagined what would follow. I do not mean its translation and publication in Greek, which raised serious questions about the author's real intentions, but rather its transformation into a 45 million pounds Hollywood-backed blockbuster that may sweep in two years the Oscars, transforming a quite unknown Greek island into a Hollywood stars resort and not only...
Cephallonia, the largest island of the Ionian Sea, remains even today a rather unexploited market for tourist enterprises. The possibilities are immense, but the Cephallonian stubborn and aristocratic temperament appeared so far quite incompatible with the rigid rules of competition and exploitation of its natural resources. However, the locals' attitude towards tourist services appears to be undergoing a radical transformation since it was announced three years ago that a Hollywood-backed British company showed interest to make De Bernieres' bestseller a high scale production and wanted to shoot the film at the original sites where the story unfolds.
Louis de Bernieres' "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" is a book able to be read in several and not necessarily compatible ways. One can read it as a remarkable "old fashioned narrative," as the author suggests in one of his interviews, "with well shaped characters and important themes: faith, love, cowardice, death." Undoubtedly the author has proven here that he is a master in the art of transporting his readers in time and space and making them feel part of events that they cannot abandon until they turn the last page. The same book can be read as an anti-war epic that recounts in the beginning the successful and heroic Greek resistance to Mussolini's divisions, which led to the first Allied Forces victory against fascism. The story develops afterwards during the Italian occupation of Cephallonia by the fascist forces and from that point of view, as the author admits, it is a "historical novel" that is bound to be read by some for what it does not tell and not for what it tells. There is a third reading between the lines, that the author cultivates but fails to control by falling victim too often to simplifications, as he tries to unravel the totalitarian personality. Louis de Bernieres intends his book not to be simply an antifascist narrative, but a narrative against totalitarianism as such. Therefore, the author wants to be equally critical against fascists and communists, against all ideologies which try to impose the one and only truth about human coexistence. It is thus that the role of Greek communists who led the wartime resistance against the Italians and the Germans in Cephallonia (and elsewhere in Greece), and who later fought against the British and American backed forces in the civil war, entangles with an antiwar epic and an unconsummated love triangle between a local young woman, the self-taught daughter of the local doctor, a member of the Greek Liberation Front (ELAS), and an Italian opera-loving army captain.
Any dispassionate observer of the Greek civil war, after 1989, cannot afford to pretend that Greek communists would have not founded another totalitarian regime had they succeeded to establish a socialist 'republic' in Greece. From that point of view one can be profoundly critical of the totalitarian elements ingrained in their ideology, irrespective of whether all those partisans were swept by the passions that cultivate illiberal regimes, poverty, and oppression. Greece fortunately escaped from this destiny, though the price it paid was much higher than it has yet been told. For Greece is a unique country in modern Europe that continues to cultivate its myths not only about its ancient history but also about its more recent history, about the role of the communists and about the civil war itself. Research in this domain, while quite extensive in recent years, remains entangled by the oppositions between left and right, rather that freeing it from ideologies and the mythologies they cultivate. This defensive attitude has left little room for serious research and debates.
When the book first appeared in its Greek translation it was generally welcomed positively, even by the official communist party's newspaper, "Rizospastis." Soon however, historians mostly affiliated to the communist party, journalists and veteran resistance fighters started attacking the book as a distortion and counterfeiting of the history of the Greek National Liberation Front (EAM), full of crude anticommunism. The debates continued for a long time, nevertheless the novel was read widely and became for some time even a best seller in Greece too. When the British filmmakers decided to produce a film out of "Captain Corelli's Mandolin," a committee was set up by local historians, mayors, and the prefect of the island to assure that all those moments in the book that offended the acceptable history of the Greek civil war would not be included in the film. As the mayor of Sami, Gerassimos Artelanis, sums up in a revealing statement about modern Greek political culture: "You know, not even Greeks have decided who was right and wrong during the civil war. It's still a bitter thing." However, he does not hesitate to add, "If they turn it into a political film, we will take measures. You can be sure we will take the issue to the international court of justice at The Hague. We will fight it all the way."("The Sunday Times," 4-6-00) The British film-makers, before shooting, had to provide assurances that they would not raise the issue of the civil war or defame the heroic Cephalenian resistance movement.
Louis de Bernieres borrowed for his novel -and it must be read as a novel and not as a historical book- images from everyday life to enrich his story. He did not select images at random but he opted for those that fit his conceptual understanding of reality and naturally he left others out. Reading the book as a historical treatise evidently leads to infinite debates and one can question several statements made in it about the anti-fascist front and about the Greek partisans ("antartes"). De Bernieres also presents in his book an imaginary which belongs to a particular historical context and culture, the British one, which had discovered the Mediterranean temperament, well before CNN, Internet and the passengers of charter flights. Undoubtedly one can be at least offended by some characterizations about the Greeks and the Italians, which are at least insolent if not racist. Nevertheless, all these must be read as a presentation of the encounter of one culture with a distinctively different one. As such, the book is a novel, which does not describe only Cephallonia in the 1940's, it also reflects the British interpretation of that culture and as such it is another important story that must be remembered. However, when one uses historical reality for raw material it ought to be treated with care and respect, even if it is history that one rightly questions and criticizes. De Bernieres' arguments often drown in passionate and subjective interpretations that he fails to control, making him vulnerable to criticisms that disembogue his arguments from their substance. He thus encourages his critics to disremember the gray side of history where events are not interpreted in terms of the good and the bad guys and where justice and totalitarianism meet.
What is awkward if not ambiguous is why the author conceded to change the Greek edition of the book, after the criticism it received by Greek historians, journalists, and living communist resistance fighters, for its portrayal of the Greek partisans. Louis de Bernieres explained to "The Guardian:" "I haven't changed my mind about what I think is the truth, but I had to bear in mind the possibility that I might be wrong. (...) The story of the communist resistance is extremely complex (...) In Greece these issues are still very much alive, and there is still much vehement hatred bubbling away just beneath the surface. Whereas my opinion about this doesn't matter too much outside Greece, it matters very much within it, and it was never part of the purpose of Corelli to stir up bad blood. Corelli is about other themes, and I wouldn't want the book to be distorted for Greek readers, which is why I agreed with my publishers and translator that some of my language and opinions should be moderated. The Greeks don't need some foreigner sticking his oar in when they can, and do, perfectly well argue among themselves."(4/6/2000) This argument is not very convincing since any author has the right to opinions and interpretations, and they constitute his material which he uses to narrate a story; books are not written to please the public but to share a moment of a time's imaginary, whether we like it or we want to forget about it.
Once the producers assured Cephallonians that the film would not touch upon the thorny issue of the civil war, everyone calmed down and tried to profit from the flourishing business that was created around the film. At the port of Sami, where the island's capital of Argostoli was reconstructed to look as it used to be in the 1940's, local labor became necessary along the specialized crew. Hundreds of Cephallonians participated as extras. Along the port where most of the shooting took place eighteen stores, hotels, restaurants, and other buildings had to shut down in the midst of the summer, in exchange for lucrative compensations that their owners could not resist to. Yet, some store owners insisted at demanding extortionate sums, which led the production company to threaten with the possibility of withdrawing and shooting the film in Turkey... Everyone in Sami and in the near villages who owned hotels, apartments or villas had full occupancy before even the summer season started, accommodating to the needs of the stars, the crew and the media. Even the Greek government conceded to provide minesweepers, landing crafts and hundreds of soldiers while some of the most beautiful beaches of the island like Mirtos or Antisami were closed to the public for several weeks.
Besides hotel and storeowners, another category that profited significantly during the shooting was that of donkey owners, compensated with 20.000 drachmas a day (approximately 50 dollars). Considering that in the 1940's donkeys were an important means of transportation, the director required a significant number, some of which even had to be brought from other regions of Greece. Cephallonian owners of small boats also became significantly richer as they took those audacious and often inhuman "paparatsi" to take a shot of Nicholas Cage -or otherwise Captain Corelli- or of Penelope Cruz -or otherwise Pelagia- and sell it to some desperate gossip paper. Greek audiences throughout this summer had to endure on several days in the evening news, of all the television stations, small and big gossip about the shooting, the actors or the upright rise of popularity of Cephallonia amongst Hollywood stars. Madonna, Steven Spielberg, Robert de Niro, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise and many others discovered the beauties of Cephallonia while the Italian tempered Sofia Loren, declared upon her return to Italy that Cephallonia will be the new Cinecita as it has nothing to envy from Hollywood. Even the Greek Minister of Culture, Theodoros Pangalos (in a less passionate post) became convinced and during his visit to the island this year tried to encourage filmmaking businesses to make investments.
A whole new market emerged, new relations of exchange appeared on the island and everyone now hopes that this is only the beginning. The whole island throughout the summer and probably for many summers to come, no matter what the destiny of the film will eventually be, has been transformed into Corelli's island. There are Corelli's bars, Corelli's cafes, Corelli's guides as Corelli-related investments multiply. Probably some discomfort will appear since the film is bound to displease a few people. However, no one doubts that all will be soon forgotten and Cephallonians will get back into the business of profiting from Captain Corelli's investments in Cephalonia's tourist industry.