“As a showcase for the talents of Pierfrancesco Favino, Comandante rises, but as a compelling and engaging war film and character portrait it sinks.”
“Fascism is pain,” someone tells Salvatore Todaro, the protagonist and titular character of Edoardo De Angelis’ latest film Comandante. But if the film gives any indication about the nature of fascism, it’s that it is rather dull. De Angelis’ tale of a submarine commander in the Italian navy during World War II, who finds humanity in his heart when faced with deciding on the lives or deaths of his enemies, may have high production values, and lead actor Pierfrancesco Favino may turn in a characteristically strong performance. But a screenplay that does the characters, including the central one, a disservice through a lack of characterization, and perfunctory and often belaboured direction turn Comandante into a chore to sit through. The film no doubt has solid mainstream appeal, especially in its home country, but this festival opener kicks off proceedings on the Lido on the wrong foot.
Salvatore Todaro (Favino) commands the submarine Cappellini as it starts its journey to the Atlantic on a nondescript mission. A hardened battle commander who leaves a wife and young child on shore, Salvatore can be both hard as nails and a father figure to his crew. A perilous leg of their journey through the Strait of Gibraltar, navigating past and inevitably becoming entangled with British depth charges, leaves them one crew member less, but such are the dangers of life on a submarine. Once out in the open Atlantic they have a run-in with a Belgian vessel, which unbeknownst to Todaro carries British war planes. A battle ensues and the Cappellini manages to sink the other ship. When the Belgian sailors threaten to go under, the Italian commander takes a bold decision: he allows the survivors’ lifeboat to be towed toward safe harbour; later, when the lifeboat is destroyed by the rough seas, he even allows them on board. With limited space in the tight quarters of the submarine some are forced to stay in the dangerous conning tower, effectively preventing the ship from diving and thus making them a sitting duck for enemy attacks.
There is no doubt that the real Salvatore Todaro was a hero, despite fighting on the wrong, fascist side of the war. The events as depicted in Comandante are true to the real story, and Todaro’s final words to the captain of the Belgian vessel Kabalo are more or less accurate. Favino is the perfect actor for a role like this, an actor who can mix cold and steely with the warmth of a smile or his kind eyes. The screenplay doesn’t require the veteran to delve too deep into his considerable arsenal, basically beatifying the character and papering over any cracks. Portraying a man who let the laws of the sea prevail over the commands of his superiors, Favino elicits sympathy, even if the screenplay throws it in his lap instead of him having to earn it.
The bigger problem is characterization, or to be more precise, the lack thereof. This starts in the film’s opening scenes, in which we see Todaro on shore with his doting wife Rina (Silvia D’Amico). The woman is reduced to a pining and preferably half-naked character who is left behind and only further referred to in letters sent to her by Todaro; letters of literary quality, it must be said, but this does add to the stuffiness of the film. This lack of anything to hold onto with regard to the characters makes the viewer care little for any of them, and that includes Todaro. The nobility of his actions cannot be disputed, but the arc to him deciding on said actions is basically nonexistent, consisting of Favino looking conflicted for a few seconds before doing the right thing. Todaro is essentially a paragon of humanity stuck in the claws of an inhumane regime, but bereft of any personality. And the supporting characters fare even worse, to the point where one only recognizes the sub’s cook and a multi-lingual Belgian sailor, but only for their distinctive external qualities, not for any of their thoughts or actions.
Ferran Paredes Rubio’s cinematography is smart looking, especially outside of the cramped spaces in the hull of the submarine, but De Angelis composes shots around it that are a little too slick and perfect, and he employs one too many gliding shots along the length of the ship. It is classical filmmaking reminiscent of American war movies of the ’50s and ’60s, technically proficient if not very inspired. The film gives us little to root for though, other than a rather trite message about humanity taking root even in a fascist world (“Giorgia Meloni, pay attention,” the film tries to say in between the lines, or waves; it is as subtle as a torpedo to the stomach). As a showcase for the talents of Pierfrancesco Favino, Comandante rises, but as a compelling and engaging war film and character portrait it sinks.