Movie Review: Comandante – Salvatore Todaro’s Tale of Valor and Humanity by Edoardo De Angelis

'Comandante' blends war drama & moral choices, showcasing Todaro's heroism & humanity in WWII. A poignant, multifaceted film by De Angelis.


Directed by Edoardo De Angelis

Plot: At the onset of World War II, Salvatore Todaro captains the submarine Cappellini of the Royal Italian Navy. In October 1940, while navigating the Atlantic in the dead of night, he is attacked by a Belgian merchant ship. In the brief but violent battle, Todaro sinks the merchant ship with cannon fire. It is at this juncture that, following the law of the sea and in defiance of his command’s orders, he decides to save the Belgian shipwreck survivors doomed to drown in the midst of the ocean.

In the introduction to the novel written with director Edoardo De Angelis, based on their screenplay for Comandante, Sandro Veronesi shares that the inspiration for the film’s script dates back to the summer of 2018, a period marked by a resurgence of xenophobia fueled by the increasing number of migrant landings fleeing detention camps in Libya in search of refuge on the Sicilian-Calabrian coasts. It was then that, through an article in “Avvenire” featuring statements by the then Commander (now Admiral) of the Coast Guard Giovanni Pettorino, the duo became aware of the story of Royal Italian Navy Commander Salvatore Todaro. During the Second World War, he rescued some crew members of the Belgian steamship Kabalo, previously sunk by the cannons of the submarine Comandante Cappellini under his command, ignoring the orders of his superiors and the barbaric laws of war in the name of a higher ideal of solidarity.

Launched on September 28, 1940, and bound for a naval base in occupied France, Comandante Cappellini, under Todaro’s guidance, navigated through the Strait of Gibraltar under the threat of surface bombings. Once near the Madeira archipelago, it came under fire from the Kabalo, which was transporting British war arsenal (officially neutral at the time, Belgium would formally enter the war a week after the events). After bombarding the enemy ship, Todaro initially decided to escort the survivors gathered on a lifeboat to the island of Santa Maria and then, after the fragile vessel capsized, even welcomed them aboard the submarine.

With a budget of 14 million euros (about a tenth of Oppenheimer‘s but almost a mega-production in the Italian context), Comandante is a film torn between different souls: the epic-historical that evokes real events and the contemporary that ties the story to the much more recent tragedies of refugees and migrants; the “industrial” of the war-adventure blockbuster, reminiscent of the great teachings of Francesco De Robertis; and the authorial that—like the novelization—shatters the narrative from various points of view, inserting an often improbable stream of thoughts that gathers the confessions, among others, of characters like Rita (Silvia D’Amico), the pregnant wife of a daughter Todaro (Pierfrancesco Favino) will never see again, or the sailor engineer Stumpo (Arturo Muselli), whose sacrifice (in a sequence suspended between documentary tension and flashes of magical realism) allows the submarine to dislodge and continue its journey.

Promoting a military mystique founded on the concepts of devotion, discipline, hierarchy, and brotherhood, sometimes enveloped in a menacing sacred aura (carrying with him a sheet of paper on which verses from the Iliad are transcribed, serving as a sort of oracular mantra), simultaneously punitive and paternal (he caresses the face of the Triestine lieutenant Stiepovich as he lies dying), tormented in body after a flight accident that forces him to wear a steel corset, Todaro embodies all the contradictions within the film, uncertain between heroic spurts from war movies and lyrical suspension in the timeless navigation, historical reconstruction and deliberate anachronisms (Morricone’s music), misunderstandings and expiations, brutality and relaxation (the scene where the captain and the Kabalo‘s petty officer teach the Neapolitan ship’s cook, Gigino, how to make French fries).

A discontinuous and unresolved work, noble and superficial, ambitious and emphatic, that seeks in its production values (with cinematography by Ferran Paredes Rubio that markedly looks to the lessons of Daniele Ciprì and Vincere) a new path for an Italian high-concept cinema (complete with an inevitable dialectical melting pot) capable of constructing a dialogue between History and the present under the sign of a secular and progressive humanism not always free from rhetorical infiltrations.

Alberto Libera

Cineforum, October 31, 2023


1 thought on “Movie Review: Comandante – Salvatore Todaro’s Tale of Valor and Humanity by Edoardo De Angelis”

  1. Andrea Ghirri

    This film was loved by right-wingers, in Italy, because Todaro was a fascist. Yep, the film tells the story a “good fascist”: pure right-wing propaganda. The Italian Administration today is right- and extreme-right wing. Why did Todaro rescue those Belgians? Todaro answers: “Because I’m Italian”. That’s laughable. And right-wing propaganda again (“God, Fatherland, Family”).

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