Guiseppe Tornatore's Baaria is a flawed spectacular
Epic historical melodrama from director of Cinema Paradiso
Whereas Fellini had his hometown of Rimini from which to draw inspiration in the likes of Amarcord and I Vitelloni, Sicilian film-maker Guiseppe Tornatore (Cinema Paradiso) has his birthplace of Baaria, near Palermo. (Baaria incidentally is local slang for the official name Bagheria.) This is the setting for this epic historical melodrama, which spans some five decades of twentieth-century Sicilian history, by focussing on three generations of the working-class Torrenuova clan.
The opening is pure Tornatore. To the accompaniment of Ennio Morricone’s overpowering orchestral score, a cute young kid in shorts tears down a busy, sun-drenched street on an errand for a local gambler. Suddenly the camera soars and he is flying through the air, as we are whisked back in time to the 1930s. Here we meet the film’s central character, the sheperd’s son Peppino, who grows up in the era of Mussolini’s blackshirts. Following the Allied liberation of Sicily in 1943, Peppino (played as an adult by Francesco Scianna) becomes a staunch advocate of workers’ rights and active figure in the Communist Party. He marries the beautiful Mannina (Margaret Made) against her parents’ wishes, and they have a family, but he’s forced to travel abroad for labouring work, and by the late 60s he’s regarded politically by a younger generation in Baaria as an obstacle to radical reform.
In this lavish production, which has been praised by Silvio Berlusconi, Tornatore orchestrates a series of spectacular set pieces: a bombing raid over Baaria in World War Two, a clash in the fields between rural workers and armed landowners, the looting of the town hall. Yet over the extensive running time, this breathless and sentimental approach to storytelling has serious drawbacks. Historical references are thrown in to the mix without being properly explained, abruptly edited individual scenes unfold at a noisily frenetic tempo, and most of the characters remain underwritten: even Mannina herself is denied much in the way of an inner life. If you compare the way Bellocchio fused form and content in Vincere, or the blending of the personal and the political in The Best of Youth, then Baaria’s shortcomings are apparent.