Comandante is exciting, well-produced and different enough from other recent war films to overcome weaknesses in its script and production.
Comandante has a lot of expectations to live up to, not least having to replace Zendaya being caught in a steamy love triangle between serves. By being pulled from the opening spot at the 80th Venice Film Festival, Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers became a high-profile casualty of the ongoing writers’ and actors’ strikes. Yet, as starry as Venice tends to be, Comandante feels quite appropriate as an opener: ambitious, handsome, and unabashedly Italian.
Centring on an event that happened in the mid-Atlantic in the throes of the Second World War, this submarine story could fall into any number of conventional narrative traps. Mercifully, it largely avoids the obvious one of being another ‘War is hell’ story. Audiences know this well enough by now (1917, All Quiet On The Western Front, etc.), and co-writer/director Edoardo De Angelis recognises his cast of characters deserve more than to be fired on and bombed for 120 minutes straight. Led by Pierfrancesco Favino’s captain Todaro, the crew of the Italian submarine Cappellini are headed for the Atlantic on a sabotage mission, but fate and their inherent humanity get in the way.
Comandante goes out of its way to establish the crew’s characters as more than the usual war movie expendables. A lengthy prologue sees Todaro’s partial recovery from previous injury to see action once again. The sub’s chef (Giuseppe Brunetti) makes love to his wife one last time. Todaro dismisses one seaman from duty for reasons that aren’t immediately clear, but which turn out to be a blessing. These scenes walk a fine line between character-driven and cheesy, but the cast just about keep it on the right side. As the battered but unbowed captain, Favino is the default anchor (Pun intended) to proceedings, and he guides the good ship Comandante through some choppy waters.
The estimated 14 million euro budget for Comandante (from a bevy of European funders, and the largesse of Paramount+) is onscreen for all to see. The submarine sets are decently claustrophobic, allowing DoP Ferran Paredes to fill the vessel with closeups of bodies and machinery to impressively oppressive effect. The film’s first half is filled with tension of all kinds. The closeness of the men’s quarters and bodies lends the film an interesting homoeroticism, while encounters with mines and enemy ships offer readymade action setpieces. For all the time De Angelis spends with his characters, he keeps this submarine going steadily. The second act is where the potential weaknesses of Comandante rear their head out of the murky Atlantic.
The Cappellini sealed its place in history in October 1940 when it sank a ship, the Belgian-registered Kabalo. Despite transporting British armaments, all 26 members of the Kabalo’s crew were saved by the Cappellini, despite risking sinking or sabotage as a result. With its focus on character, Comandante takes a very humanist approach to the actions of the submarine’s crew. They sacrifice for each other and their newfound prisoners/cohabitants, but De Angelis becomes increasingly able to raise this bravery above sentimentality.
Thematically, Comandante does an admirable job of blurring the line between bravery and fear; the crewmen are not particularly noble or even driven by their mission, merely trying to survive. Yet, the two crews being pushed together offers more cheesiness than tension. Despite the events being based in truth, some flagrantly twee scenes of bonding and humour threaten to undermine the serious tone taken earlier on. The actions of the Cappellini should be enough to translate to film without embellishing but, like many films before it, Comandante can’t resist easy sentiment. It also doesn’t help that the special effects are generally poor: some scenes of the submarine and crew above water are painfully obvious in their use of greenscreen. The likability of the cast and the tense action ensure Comandante is never less than watchable, but Das Boot it is not.
Comandante was the opening film at the 2023 Venice Film Festival on August 30, 2023. Read our list of films to watch at the 2023 Venice Film Festival and discover the 2023 Venice Immersive Lineup!