Thursday, May 30, 2024

Open Roads ’24: The War Machine

It is a shame Lt. Commander Salvatore Todaro did not live to see Italy switch sides in WWII, because he probably could have worked well with the Allies. Todaro might be the only Axis officer who is remembered for saving lives and this is the most notable example. Todaro and his crew truly deliver full service when they first sink the Kabalo, a Belgian freighter, and then rescue all 26 survivors in Edoardo De Angelis’s The War Machine (a.k.a. Comandante), which screens as the opening night selection of this year’s Open Roads: New Italian Cinema.

As the film opens, Todaro’s damaged body raises questions whether he can continue to serve. Frankly, his wife would not mind caring for him for the rest of their lives, but he just cinches himself up and heads out on another tour aboard the submarine, the Comandante Cappelli.

Todaro’s practice of yoga and meditation are obviously quite unusual for an Italian Naval officer in 1940, but it helps explain his free-thinking humanism. He is also one of the best skippers in the Italian navy. When his crew detects the Belgian-flagged Kabalo, Todaro methodically hunts it down. Technically, Belgium was a neutral country, but the cargo ship was indeed carrying arms to England. How it managed to even get that far must have been a minor miracle, considering Belgium was occupied by Germany on May 28, 1940.

Of course, Todaro’s standing orders were to disregard survivors and get right back to the hunt. Instead, the Comandante gave all 26 Belgians shelter inside the Comandante Cappelli, agreeing to ferry them to safe international shipping lanes, even though that exposed his boat to considerable danger.

Todaro’s “good fascist” credentials can be debated till the swallows fly home, but the “separate peace” aspects of the Kabalo story (which largely happened the way De Angelis and co-screenwriter Sandro Veronesi suggest) ought to resonate with pacifists and conflict resolution workshop hucksters. It is a heck of a story that challenges our preconceived notions of mercy, gratitude, and loyalty. De Angelis clearly wants viewers to ask themselves how they would act were they members of either the Italian or Belgian crews.

However, this is definitely not the second coming of Neo-Realism. Frankly, the early scene of Todaro and his crew singing a sailors’ hymn in unison as the march to their sub, while the “independent contractors” working the docks wish their clients well, runs a real risk of glorifying fascism. Still, it is good cinema.

The submarine interiors also look authentically cramped and musty. This is a solid submarine movie—possibly the only one in the history that does not have a scene of the crew struggling to remain absolutely silent, to avoid sonar detection.

De Angelis’s cast looks legit too, especially Pierfrancesco Favino as Todaro. He is just the picture of grit, grizzle, and slipped disks. The way he interacts with his subordinates, officers and seamen alike, also rings true.

In no way is this film militaristic. However, it definitely does good PR work for the Mussolini era Italian Navy. It is a film of contradictions that will inspire conflicted feelings, but that certainly makes it interesting. Recommended for fans of submarine films who already fully understand the historical context,
The War Machine screens tonight (5/30) and next Monday (6/3) as part of Open Roads.