And the Sea Will Tell: De Angelis Sells the Soft Side of Fascism
Napolitano director Edoardo De Angelis embarks on his most lavish offering to date with Comandante, a period piece reflecting a decisive week in the life of Italian Naval officer Salvatore Todaro during WWII in which he did the inexplicable – risked his own life and crew to save the survivors of a ‘neutral’ ship he sank. Playing partially like a propaganda film commissioned for Terrence Malick, a poetic screenplay (co-written by Sandro Veronesi) allows for narration serving as interiority in ways which are often enriching but sometimes schmaltzy.
An inviting but unflaggingly stoic performance from the striking Pierfrancesco Favino goes a long way towards preserving the integrity of the film’s overt messaging regarding the importance of doing the right thing even if it means assisting those with opposing political ideologies. This, of course, sometimes feels a bit too simplified in war time and especially when dealing with a perspective detrimental to the preservation of the civilized world—-but therein also lies its potency, unearthing the basic humanity we should all be mainlining in the first place.
“Fascism is pain,” mutters a doctor administering a spinal corset to Salvatore Todaro (Favino), having survived a plane crash while on board a flying boat, which fractured his spine, leaving him dependent on morphine. His wife Rina (Silvia D’Amico) finds comfort in his injury, believing it will allow them to have a quiet, peaceful life together. Such would not be the case, and the film fast forwards to an integral moment when Todaro would assume control of the Cappellini submarine in 1940, charged with participation in the Battle of the Atlantic. However, along the way, Todaro sank a Belgian ship, the Kabalo, after they fired upon the Cappellini. At the time, Belgium was neutral, though carrying British weapons in anticipation of joining Great Britain’s side. Taking pity on the surviving crew who were not able to get on one of their ship’s lifeboats, Todaro gifts them with supplies. Shortly after, in realizing there are no other boats in the vicinity which would save them, Todaro retrieves them, eventually allowing them to board his submarine despite defying standing orders not to do so.
Before Comandante gets to the meat of its dramatic conflict, De Angelis spends most of the time navigating Todaro’s relationships with several crew members, notably a close comrade (Massimiliano Rossi) and the ship’s cook. We get whispery snippets from some of their loved ones before they embark on a (likely) doomed mission, while Todaro’s thoughts are documented through various letters to his wife. It appears Todaro had the reputation of having a sort of second sight, potentially a soothsayer, believing he was doomed to die at sea, in his sleep (he would, in fact, be killed in action in 1942).
Much like All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque’s classic anti-war novel which dealt with Germany’s slaughtered soldiers during WWI, we are allowed an intimate look at the resulting camaraderie of a crew under the most extreme circumstances, where survival trumps the ideologies they’ve been tasked with defending. DP Ferran Paredes (who lensed De Angelis’ earlier film Indivisible – read review), conjures claustrophobic anxieties amidst various seafaring battle sequences which convey a sense of their isolating magnitude. A warm bond develops between Todaro and two members of the Belgian crew, including Jacques Reclercq (Johannes Wirix) and Captain Georges Vogels (Johan Heldenbergh) which, for the most part, stays above being hokey, at least until their final moments together.
The script takes pains to showcase Todaro’s need to differentiate the far-right Italian sentiments from that of their allies, the Nazis, during this specific time period. Since the film is based on true events, it’s perhaps logical to assert this logic (i.e., adhering to the rules of the sea) was likely to be Todaro’s driving force. In the film’s opening quote relating to the ongoing war in Ukraine, it would seem De Angelis ultimately wishes those from whatever far right realm allow themselves to embrace their humanity instead of their polarizing ideology. Outside of these disparate moments, history reveals a different pattern despite such acknowledgments of notable people doing the right thing.
Reviewed on August 30th, September at the 2023 Venice Film Festival – In Competition. 120 Mins.