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This movie won an Oscar for best Foreign Film

‘Mediterraneo’ (NR)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 08, 1992

The drowsy, sun-burnished island setting of Gabriele Salvatores' ravishing "Mediterraneo" is nearly enough to make you sell all your possessions, kiss the modern world goodbye and vamoose for the blissful antiquity of the Aegean. A pleasingly soothing piece of escapist entertainment, the film is like a mini-vacation; two hours or so in a rapturous azure paradise, without a care.

It may sound like quibbling to add that, beyond all this, "Mediterraneo" isn't much of a movie. When the picture begins, the year is 1941, and a motley crew of eight Italian sailors has been dispatched on a four-month mission to a strategically inconsequential Greek island. Their assignment is not entirely clear, or particularly vital, which is all for the best when you consider that, within a matter of days, their ship is sunk and their radio destroyed, leaving them stranded on the island without means of escape or communication.

In these early scenes, as the soldiers bumble around like a lazy octet of Marx Brothers, the Italian director -- whose work here won the Oscar this year for Best Foreign Film -- is able to establish a breezy comic tone. The rhythms of the film are as calming and seductive as a lullaby: It's as if Salvatores were gently rocking you to sleep. He also has a delicate sense of character and atmosphere; the landscape of bone-white rocks, framed by the deep turquoise of the sea in the background, becomes a character itself, silently dominating every scene.

There's a graceful ease in the way Salvatores allows the men in the unit to reveal their individual personalities, especially when they discover that the island is, in fact, inhabited by the people left behind after the Germans took all the able-bodied young men prisoner. But once the men have settled into their lives among the natives -- including a voluptuously good-natured prostitute named Vasilissa (Vanna Barba) -- there's not much for them to react to. Montini (Claudio Bigagli), the intellectual young lieutenant who commands the squad, spends his time restoring the weathered frescoes in the village church, while the other men play soccer, read poetry and pay their daily respects to Vasilissa. One sleepy day follows another, and, after a while, the movie seems to slip into neutral.

By the time a British ship arrives to rescue the men, bringing an end to their long idyll, the war is over. But as the Greeks who had been captured by the Germans are returned home, and the sailors -- all except the sensitive aide who falls in love with and marries Vasilissa -- prepare to pick up their lives back in Italy, the picture just seems to dribble away. After an ambiguous coda, all we are left with is the memory of those glorious Mediterranean vistas, and a sense of peaceful, if rather empty, relaxation.

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