During the Second World War, in June 1941, an ad-hoc platoon of Italian soldiers is sent to garrison a small Augean island called Medisti. The soldiers are the coarse Sgt. Lo Russo, his trusted radio operator Colasanti, mule-driver Strazzabosco, the Munaron brothers from the mountains, clumsy batman Farina and the habitual deserter Noventa. They are headed by Lieutenant Montini, a secondary school teacher with a passion for painting. The island seems at first to be deserted, and when the inhabitants of the village start to appear there are only women, the elderly, and children; the men have been deported by the Germans. The soldiers abandon themselves to idleness and romance. During a football match, an Italian pilot who lands on the island announces that there has been an armistice. The group realizes that three years have passed. The men return to the island and after some time the British repatriate the soldiers, except for Farina, now married, and Noventa, who escaped on a boat. Years later, the elderly Montini, informed by Farina of his wife’s death, arrives on an island now swarming with tourists. Lo Russo is also on the island, having returned disappointed by the betrayed hopes of post-war Italy.
Gabriele Salvatores’s fifth film, and winner of the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1992, Mediterraneo was the third of three pictures filmed continuously in just three years. It follows Marrakech Express (1989) and Turné/On Tour (1990), the three often being linked as the “trilogy of escape”. Mediterraneo is the first and only historical film by Salvatores, but it is clear from the opening scenes that we are dealing with a war film sui generis: there are no representations of military activity (glimpsed only from afar, on the first night, in brief flashes from a battle), of tragedy (the only deaths are a hen and a donkey) or of epic direction. The result is a demythologization of war in the tradition of the commedia all'italiana, from which Mediterraneo inherits the task of creating a realistic portrayal of the era, especially in the rapport it presents between the integration and the exclusion of the individual from society. The protagonists, a somewhat random collection of vain and destitute men, are marked by regional characteristics that suggest an Italy of small, isolated fragments (the Tuscan Lieutenant who is also a poet, the reserved mountain-dwellers from the Veneto, the Milanese show-off, the vague Sicilian pilot). At the start of the film, the characters move in dysfunctional pairs (the two Munaron brothers, Strazzabosco and the donkey, the batman and the lieutenant, the sergeant and the radio operator) as if expressing a fragmented collectivity in search of a place to regroup. As a whole, however, they are reduced to the repeated line “Italians: one face, one race”, a self-absolving opinion characteristic of Salvatores’ antiheroes but which is also a homage to a film tradition in which farcical derision rarely adds up to a real critique.
Mediterraneo oscillates between a realistic setting and surreal abstraction. The warm and welcoming light of the imaginary Medisti island, where it is always summer, shines on a species of elderly people, lovely women and happy children, a kind of primordial Eden, a mythological place predating human history. Medisti is a place where the past can be cancelled out and the future reimagined. The citation by Henry Laborit at the start of the film (“In times like these escape is the only way to stay alive and continue to dream”) gives the idea of escape as a kind of precondition for the redefinition – or the persistence – of dreams. The soldiers’ previous lives are only acknowledged retrospectively whilst on the island (with the exception of Noventa, who returns to his pregnant wife in Italy), and nothing is learnt of what happens to the characters in the ellipsis between the soldiers’ return home and the film’s epilogue. Instead we find them, disappointed, as if time had contracted in expectation of a bitter realization at the film’s end.
Salvatores’ young soldiers, who, “at an age where one is unsure whether to start a family or lose oneself around the world”, play football, have their first sexual experiences (including a ménage à trois), discover their homosexuality, smoke chillums and make fun of the Fascist regime, represent a symbolic generation born not of the downfall of Mussolini in 1943 but of the loss of the ideals of 1968 by the time of the political scandals of the early 1990s. The heritage of the ’68 generation, Salvatores seems to suggest, can be found in personal interactions, in small collectives and their artisanal modes of production. As the film’s ending suggests, when Lieutenant Montini goes back to work with his old comrades, this is less about escaping than simply about getting back together again.