‘Comandante’ Review: Venice Opens with a WWII Submarine Film That Salutes a Momentous Act of Italian Heroism

The title character of “Comandante,” Salvatore Todaro (Pierfrancesco Favino), is a submarine commander in the Italian Royal Navy who has a different spirit from the military machos we tend to encounter in movies. He’s certainly tough enough — a bruiser with a dark edge. “Comandante” is set during the early days of World War II (September and October 1940), and as Salvatore leads the crew of the Cappellini, an iron hulk of an underwater vessel equipped with a dozen torpedoes and a pair of machine guns, he’s not shy about his dedication to blowing up his enemies.

But he’s also a saddened romantic warrior with the heart of a poet. As the men prepare to board the sub, Salvatore assembles them for a pep talk, and his look is striking: the double-breasted brown leather coat, the coiffed hair and thick goatee, the gleam of burning-eyed fatalism. Favino resembles a swarthier version of Bruce McGill; for all his stoic intensity, there’s a civilian quality of introspection about him. He orders one of the sailors to leave the group and stay ashore, for reasons that aren’t explained until later, when we learn that the sailor has been taken ill to the hospital, where he nearly died. Salvatore was saving his life, and doing it with a soothsayer’s ability.

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Later, after a machine gunner has been wounded in an attack, Salvatore stitches up the head wound himself, and he orders the cook to prepare gnocchi for the men; you can tell how much it lifts their spirits because of how quiet they get when they’re eating it. In most military dramas, the soldiers wear uniforms, which tends to make our responses to them a bit…uniform. In “Comandate,” the crew members wear grimy sleeveless T-shirts and come off like quarrelsome, roughhousing, back-slapping men more than Navy combatants. The movie tells a true story, but it’s not a historical action film. It’s the WWII drama as subdued, anecdotal anti-thriller.

At moments, “Comandante” may remind you of “Das Boot,” because it has elements in common with Wolfgang Petersen’s landmark 1981 film: the haunted quality of the captain, the downbeat European crew, the fact that in both cases our heroes are fighting for a fascist regime. (In “Comandante,” Il Duce gets the occasional shoutout.) But “Das Boot” was defined by its battle logistics — the plunges from claustrophobia to danger and back again. “Comandate,” paced to Salvatore’s diary-like thoughts (which we hear on the soundtrack), has a grounded quality that, at moments, is mildly stirring, but much of the movie just sort of lopes along. If the director and co-writer, Edoardo Di Angeli, had fleshed out the characters more, the film might have a weightier sense of drama, but “Comandante,” in its honorable and slightly gloomy way, has been conceived as the delivery system for a humanitarian message.

In the second half, the Cappellini is attacked by the Kabalo, a Belgian merchant ship. The sub has little trouble blowing the steamship out of the water, but that leaves 26 Belgian soldiers stranded in a pair of lifeboats. Technically, the Belgians are neutral in the war, but Salvatore knows they’ve been carrying aircraft parts for the British; they’re getting ready to take sides. Nevertheless, he orders that the survivors be brought aboard the sub, so that they can be taken to the sanctuary of Santa Maria Island, which is two days’ journey away. At that moment, their humanity matters more than winning the war, even if it means breaking military rules. This is the event of lofty momentousness that the film builds toward (from the director’s statement: “Salvatore knows the eternal laws that govern the sky and the sea and he knows that they are superior to any other law”).

“Comandante” was chosen to open the Venice Film Festival after Luca Guadagnino’s “Challengers,” a tennis drama starring Zendaya, bowed out due to the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. And while “Comandate” seems designed to make Italian audiences feel good about themselves and their history (which is fine; that’s one thing war movies do), the prospects for that hook carrying over to the U.S. market seem limited. It’s not that the film needed more action; it’s that it could have used a sharper, less randomized story. Salvatore’s grizzled first mate, Vittorio (Massimiliano Rossi), keeps pestering him about the Strait of Gibraltar, which they have to pass through on their way to the Atlantic, and how it’s treacherously thin — “like a chicken’s arse,” he says. But when the sub reaches Gibraltar, there’s an arty shot of mines exploding behind jelly fish, but the problem just evaporates. So why introduce it? There’s also a good moment, with a welcome touch of humor, when the Belgians teach the Cappellini cook how to make French fries. But the family-of-man message of “Comandante,” while noble and upstanding, isn’t enough to make it an exciting movie.

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