Giuseppe Tornatore has always been a sentimental director with a love for over-the-top emotions.
In Baaria, screening in competition at the Venice International Festival, the sentimentality is reined in enough to create a moving tribute to his Sicilian hometown of Bagheria (Baaria in the local dialect) as well as his family.
Italians probably will find the 163-minute film too picturesque, but it could resonate with foreign viewers, who have come to associate this kind of warm, loud, family tale with Italian cinema. Spoken almost entirely in the Baaria dialect, it will be subtitled for local audiences, though abroad none will be the wiser.
Tornatore takes a while to set up the story's direction. The film opens with little Pietro Torrenuova running through and then taking flight over the streets of Baaria before flashing back to the childhood of Peppino Torrenuova (who we discover later is Pietro's, and essentially Tornatore's, father). The first 20 minutes establish the feel of the town, its faces and folklore, with scenes that alternate between being overly orchestrated and genuinely moving or funny. This includes a priest's dismay that the new church fresco is being painted with the faces of the local miscreants including headstrong troublemaker Peppino.
Another half-hour is dedicated to Peppino's adolescence, which includes petty theft and joining the Communist party. In his early 20s, he falls in love with Mannina (Margareth Made), and the two marry despite her parents' protests. Peppino (played from here on out by Francesco Scianna, whose performance carries the film) continues to work dragging his cows through town and offering fresh milk, but his restless nature leads him further into the party and to fight tirelessly for workers' rights. He spends years unemployed, as his family grows, but dreams of becoming a politician.
Although the Sicilian and Italian politics that are the backdrop to the story will mean little to foreign audiences, what holds this film together is not its historical arch but Tornatore's compassion and love for the places and people from which he came.
The sun-drenched photography is rich. The editing helps give a natural flow to the film with jump cuts in time that add to the sense of how quickly life passes. Baaria would benefit from a shorter running time, if only to keep Tornatore from becoming overly wistful in scenes. This is especially true with the ending, which brings past and present together poetically before driving home the point for too long.
Tornatore also overscores his films to a fault, and there are far too many orchestral swells by Ennio Morricone.
But what is most important here is capturing the small corner of the world that was the universe to the young Tornatore and showing how life always comes full circle, with each generation convinced it's reinventing the wheel. The local left-wing youths see the middle-aged Peppino as a conservative. His teenage daughter even calls him a fascist for not letting her wear miniskirts, though Pietro, who grows up enamored with photography and films, remains awed by his sometimes defeated, sometimes fiery old man.
The film is rounded out by cameos from some of Italy's top names, including Michele Placido, Luigi Lo Cascio, Monica Bellucci, Raoul Bova and Paolo Briguglia.