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'Italian Affair' author fiddles with 'Captain Corelli's Mandolin'

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Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This is not a review; rather, it's a freewheeling, tangential discussion of art, alternative ideas, and popular culture.

Laura Fraser would take a love story over a war story any day. Blood and gore, it seems, make the San Francisco author cringe and shudder, which is what she does through much of Captain Corelli's Mandolin, the new Nicolas Cage World War II epic that swings manic-depressively between operatic scenes of misty-eyed romance and frightening moments of blood-soaked slaughter.

A stripped-down version of Louis De Berniere's best-selling novel, the film follows the war-time romance between an Italian soldier-mandolinist (Cage) and the Greek beauty Pelagia (Penelope Cruz), whose charming little island, Cephalonia, is occupied by the Italian army for several months during the war.

Love occurs. Breasts are exposed. Bullets rip through quivering flesh.

"E cosi e finito," Fraser sighs gratefully when the credits finally roll. "And so, it is over."

With that, we head out in search of pizza.

Fraser, 40, is the author of An Italian Affair (Pantheon, $22.00). Written in novel-esque second person, the unique travelogue recounts the writer's sexual and spiritual adventures with a married Italian professor, whom Fraser met while mending a post-divorce broken heart on the little island of Ischia, west of Naples.

During the two-year affair, Fraser met the professor in various romantic locations around the globe. Many of those spots--like Ischia, the Aeolians, and Catalina--were islands.

But more on that later.

"The movie is, as they'd say in Italian, esagerato," pronounces Fraser, sipping a beer while waiting for our to arrive. "It was a big, operatic tearjerker where every emotion is exaggerated--the love speeches, the earthquakes--everything is overblown."

Overblown, in particular, are the stereotyped portrayals of the Greeks and Italians.

"Especially the Italians," she says. "I mean. the first thing out of Cage's mouth is 'Bella Bambina!' Then there's all that, 'We Italians, we love food, and wine, and making love' stuff. Hollywood has a tendency to look at all Italians that way."

"It's not just Hollywood," I point out. "Italian travel brochures tend to push that image as well."

"True," she allows. "Don't get me wrong. Italians do put a high priority on eating and drinking and making love. They live their lives with a sense of gusto that American's don't. It's one of the things I love about Italy. But that's not all there is to Italians. They have a serious, dark side too."

"How did Cage rate as an Italian?" I ask.

"Well, of course, he is an Italian-American," she reminds me. "Actually, his accent wasn't that bad."

She asks if I've ever seen the film Mediterraneo, the 1991 Oscar winner about a band of Italian soldiers who are transformed from killers into human beings while stationed on a small Greek island. That film, she argues, was a better representation of Italians, and also showed the transformative power of beautiful places, particularly of islands.

"Islands, says Fraser, "are great places to fall in love. In the book, just going to Italy, to get over heartbreak, wasn't enough. I had to go to an island. On an island, there's a sense of leaving the rest of the world. It wasn't until I got on the boat to Ischia that I truly believed I could leave something behind me, could leave some pain behind me.

And, evidently, find something as well.

"I think that, to fall in love, you have to have a sense that you've stepped outside your regular world," Fraser says. "There's something about a place like Catalina Island or the Aeolian Islands, north of Sicily, that gives you a sense of space, that makes you feel vulnerable, that makes it possible to open up to another person."

Corelli and Pelagia might agree. Had they met in, say, San Francisco, who knows if they'd have even noticed each other?

"Though, as far as cities go," Fraser says, "San Francisco is not a bad place to fall in love."

"I think it's really hard to fall in love in the middle of daily life," Fraser muses, sliding a slice of pizza from the platter to her plate. "In daily life, you're always worried about work and bills and traffic. When you run away to a beautiful place, when you go to the outdoors, those everyday things are placed in a different perspective.

"Every time I've ever fallen in love," she adds, "it was outdoors."

She makes a quick list of places where, based on her own experiences, falling in love is easy to do. To those places she describes in her book, she adds Canyonlands, in Utah, anywhere in Colorado, and Pt. Reyes.

"Though Golden Gate park works in a pinch," she laughs.

"When you are in nature," Fraser says, "you are stripped down to the person you are underneath the person you carry around all day. You need to be in a place where you feel awed. You have to step outside of yourself a little bit to fall in love. Awe does that to you.

"One of the things the professor said to me, when we were on one of those islands, is 'The most important things never change. The sea, the sky, sex, olive oil, the basic things of life.'

"Finding yourself in a raw and beautiful place brings you back to what's elemental," Fraser concludes. "That in itself can heal a heart."

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From the August 30-September 5, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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