‘Comandante’ Review: Visceral Italian Naval Drama Wrecked by Its Own Worthiness

‘Comandante’ Review: Visceral Italian Naval Drama Wrecked by Its Own Worthiness

The formidably versatile Italian star Pierfrancesco Favino (The Traitor, Nostalgia) does many impressive things in the WWII submarine story, Comandante. He wears an asphyxiating back brace that looks painful. He speaks in a convincing Venetian accent. He does yoga. He barks orders to his haggard crew, including that they all eat gnocchi. He shoots heroin at one point. But most of all, he bravely and boldly saves two dozen Belgian sailors from drowning at sea, which makes his character, Salvatore Todaro, a veritable war hero.

That last part is heard loud and clear, many times over, in director Edoardo De Angelis’ thundering tribute to a man who defied fascist orders and extended a hand to his fellow seafarers, despite the fact they may have been supplying the Allies with weapons. Why he does this seems less important in this handsomely made, if awfully deliberate, maritime drama than the fact that he simply did it — and more importantly, that he was Italian.

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The Bottom Line

Laudable but overwrought.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition, Opening Night Film)
Cast: Pierfrancesco Favino, Massimiliano Rossi, Johan Heldenbergh, Arturo Muselli, Giuseppe Brunetti
Director: Edoardo De Angelis
Screenwriters: Edoardo De Angelis, Sandro Veronesi

2 hours

This isn’t to say that Comandante — which opened the 80th Venice Film Festival after Luca Guadagnino’s tennis romance, Challengers, pulled out due to the Hollywood strikes — is either a patriotic period piece or a jingoistic wartime flick, though it’s a bit of both at times. The message De Angeles seems to be relaying to his fellow countrymen (it’s unlikely the film will see much international play) is one of universal humanism, especially at a time when African migrants are tragically drowning off of Italy’s shores.

It’s therefore a laudable message, but it’s often too much of one. As soon as the Comandante opens his mouth, he seems to be speechifying, as if Favino’s lines were written by a political pundit. The film plays much better when we simply get to watch Todaro and his crew hard at work, either shooting down enemy aircraft or sweating out some close calls as they make their way toward the Atlantic in October 1940, passing through a Strait of Gibraltar packed with deadly naval mines.

De Angelis, whose previous movies (Indivisible, The Vice of Hope) were small-scale dramas set around his native Naples, shows he has the chops for some of this film’s strongest set pieces, including a gunfight that takes place on a rocky sea at nighttime. Bombs burst in our faces and waves smack us silly. Men get brutally disfigured and die.

Comandante was shot for only €15 million (over $16 million), yet it looks like it was made for several times that budget. Production designer Carmine Gurino’s full-scale rebuild of the original Cappellini submarine is an admirable centerpiece, while the VFX team provides a few memorable details, such as jellyfish floating by as torpedoes explode above them and set the water aflame.

Alongside the imposing Favino, some of the other actors manage to give their characters nice touches. Giuseppe Brunetti plays the likeable galley cook, Gigino, a born-and-bred Neapolitan who speaks in the dialect and knows how to make any Italian food imaginable, even when there’s no supplies left and all he can do is imagine it. The scene where the Belgian sailors teach him how to cook their national dish, French fries, is cute and heartwarming, and received applause during the Venice press screening.

But other things in Comandante feel too symbolically obvious or overblown, beginning with an opening where Todaro, whose back was severely injured when he jumped from a plane during a training exercise, is waylaid in the naval base at Livorno along with his adoring wife, Rina (Silvia D’Amico). Cue Pietro Mascagni’s “Cavalleria rustica: Intermezzo sinfonico” — a track used most famously by Scorsese for the opening of Raging Bull — which plays over shots of Rina standing topless, wearing a captain’s hat.

Later, when the Comandante accepts a mission to sail into dangerous waters a year into the Second World War, he makes the first of many fired-up speeches to his crew. “We’re Italians, and we’re alone,” he tells them, trying his best to distinguish his army from the Nazis they’re aligned with. That attitude proves to be his main weapon when the submarine takes down a Belgian freighter, and Todaro decides to save its crew — even if his loyal, Ahab-esque first mate (Vittorio Marcon) would rather they drown.

Toward the end, when addressing the freighter’s Flemish captain (Johan Heldenbergh from The Broken Circle Breakdown), Todaro again reminds us that he did the good, brave deed because he’s Italian. By that point it’s overkill, and it proves that while De Angelis knows how to create visceral action and moments of intensity, he’s incapable of the slightest hint of subtlety. His message is, again, a commendable one, especially at a time when Italy’s far-right government is pushing a broad anti-immigration agenda. But that doesn’t mean Comandante needs to scream it from the rooftops, or from a hundred meters underwater, and the result is a seaworthy film that’s also far too worthy.