Inaugurating this year’s Venice Film Festival, Edoardo De Angelis’ Italian war drama “Comandante” certainly makes for an improbable fall-season kickoff – filling a prime, opening-night slot often reserved for glitzy global titles on the U.S. awards hunt in lieu of sturdy local productions with limited crossover appeal. But then we do find ourselves at an equally improbable moment, as the ongoing strikes promise a fall corridor rife with uncertainty, lit by lower star-wattage and met with another round of on-the-fly problem solving from harried festival organizers.
Given this once-again shaky terrain — goodbye original opener “Challengers,” from Luca Guadagnino — the fact that Venice lost just one major title might be the most surprising outcome of all, although this opening spotlight’s harsher and more intense glare does “Comandante” few favors. Welding the star-power of the country’s leading man Pierfrancesco Favino (“The Traitor”) to the familiar comforts of real-life WW2 heroism, the crowd-pleasing “Comandante” might even come out on top at Italy’s David di Donatello awards, but this vessel is simply not made for international waters.
That this particular World War 2 drama follows a merry band of seafaring fascists is the least of our concerns, as director De Angelis and co-writer Sandro Veronesi tackle the F-word early on, using the hero as a mouthpiece to talk their way out of too many thorny political questions. Standing upright before his crew for a pre-mission pep-talk, submarine commander Salvatore Todaro (Favino, of course) promises a reprieve from the laws of Il Duce and Il Re, describing the vessel as a world onto itself – a stage where traditional Italian values (and traditional Italian machismo) can assert themselves from the strictures of the ruling regime.
A gentle family man strapped into a full-body brace and weaning himself off morphine, our comandante is more soothsayer than warmonger – he sees further than his crew, beyond the far-right of Mussolini and, perhaps, towards the far-right of Meloni. Which is to say that “Comandante,” for all its dopiness and national mythologizing, is basically a well-intentioned call for tolerance, fully attuned to the country’s current political climate. After an appealingly episodic first hour – zigzagging between the ensigns biding their time in a brown-hued, iron-walled tomb that reeks of musk and stale tobacco – the action really picks up once Todaro and crew engage an enemy, Belgian ship in battle.
Well, almost enemies – as Belgium has yet to formally enter the war – but everyone from the victorious Italians to the waterlogged Flemish knows on which side they stand. Everyone, that is, but Commander Salvatore Todaro. And in an act of wartime disobedience that would inspire German outrage in the fall of 1940, followed by a clunky biopic some 83-years later, our hero eventually welcomes his one-time adversaries onto his boat, offering them safe passage to the nearby Madeira islands.
Though he finds little room for subtlety and even less interest in complex moral shadings, director Edoardo De Angelis can still ably wring tension from this brave, if foolhardy, mission, spinning his camera around ever-cramped quarters as the two crews, enemies-turned-shipmates, navigate uncharted terrain. At least, uncharted for those on screen – those in the audience will have to content themselves with another men-on-a-mission war drama that trots out a number of regional dialects to ask that eternal question: We’re not so different, you and I?
At its best, “Comandante” leans into those dialects, recognizing the immense gulf that separates cynics from the north and true believers from south can be just as daunting within the navy, especially when everyone is stuck inside a deep-sea pressure cooker fueled by conflicting machismo. Reflecting the historical record, the comandante attributes his undeniable altruism to his proud national identity, resulting in a film that will inherently play better to viewers who already share in that pride and who can situate themselves within a very defined frame of reference.
A third-act highlight only proves that point. In order to defuse the ever-growing tension, as only an Italian could see fit, Todaro ushers his Belgian counterpart into the kitchen, asking the uneasy shipmate to cook his national dish. What else does the Belgian captain trot out but potato batons cooked in rendered fat? The bout of French fry diplomacy goes over like gangbusters for all on-board, causing the ship’s cook to cry out, “We Neapolitans fry everything — how have we never thought of this?!”
At Wednesday’s Venice premiere, the punchline earned howls of laughter and knowing applause from half the audience and stone-faced silence from the rest, a throwaway gag that all too helpfully delineated the film’s intended audience from those who sat impatiently, waiting to disembark.