Baarìa (2009): Directed by Giuseppe Tornatore

By Jeff Farr

After opening the Venice Film Festival last year, Giuseppe Tornatore’s “Baarìa” was nominated for the Golden Globe for best foreign film and was the official Italian entry for the Oscars. However, it is no surprise that the Academy did not nominate Tornatore’s new film—it’s an epic that probably should not have been made.

Tornatore is still best known for his 1989 Oscar-winning “Cinema Paradiso,” which became an international hit and the crown jewel of a revived Italian cinema. But it is clear from Baarìa” that his filmmaking has not progressed much since then. Tornatore has the tendency to “overcook” whatever he lays his hands on, signs of which were evident even in “Cinema Paradiso,” a sentimental melodrama. Many things have changed over the last twenty years, but Tornatore still loves his cornball.
Centered around small-town life in Baarìa, Sicily, Tornatore’s new film unfolds as a big fat Italian cartoon, spanning from the 1930s to the 1980s. Peppino Torrenuova (Francesco Scianna) starts off as a cute shepherd boy and winds up a failed Communist Party politician. With a running time of two hours and forty minutes, Peppino’s journey feels too long, one that starts to wear thin as early as the forty-minute mark.
Predictably, there is a love story at the heart of this melodrama. Peppino and his neighbor Mannina (Margareth Madè) fall hard for each other early on. However, her parents oppose their union, due to Peppino’s involvement in Communist activities.
Nonetheless, soon enough the couple is eloping–locking themselves in her family home. Mannina is then giving birth to many babies, which goes on literally for the rest of the film. As a love story, “Baarìa” falls flat for many reasons; for one thing, there is no chemistry between the cardboard characters or the actors who play them, Scianna and Madè..
The fact that Scianna as Peppino is such a nonentity is a major deficit for this film. The entire epic hangs on him as a kind of working-class hero, who is obviously supposed to be a stand-in for Tornatore’s real-life father. But who is this Peppino? What makes him tick? Tornatore and his lead actor never let us in. Although Scianna gains some gravitas toward the end, through most of the film he is just a pretty face.
Peppino’s lifelong interest in politics, specifically the Communist Party, seems to come from nowhere. Although we see him experience as a child some injustices at the hands of local authorities, in another, more interesting film, this would have set him on a course of violent revenge. Instead we get Communism. But when does Communism click with Peppino at such a fundamental level? We never see that moment of awakening.
Tornatore wished to make a statement here about family life versus the world of politics, but he misses that opportunity. When Peppino’s father dies, in what should be an emotional highpoint, his repeated deathbed mantra that “Politics is wonderful” only mystifies. Where does that come from? Tornatore’s screenplay is bewildering, to say the least.
Baarìa” does impress with its production values. It certainly looks like the epic it desperately wants to be. That said, the film feels storyboarded to a fault. Sequence after sequence suffers from unnecessarily fancy camerawork by Enrico Lucidi, and pounding score by Ennio Morricone. Everything is larger than life, and life itself gets lost.
Some allusions to Federico Fellini sprinkled throughout “Baarìa” underscore what has been lost in the post-“Cinema Paradiso” era. “Baarìa,” in fact, recalls Fellini’s classic “Amarcord” (1973). Both films are autobiographical, centering on small-town life and politics; both deal with how fascism played out in Italian towns in the 1930s.
But “Amarcord” is teeming with the kind of life that “Baarìa” sorely lacks. Fellini actually takes us to his hometown: We feel its rhythms, watch the seasons change, get to know the locals intimately. In “Baarìa,” we rarely get to step off this massive movie set. A few sequences in which Peppino travels to a favorite site in the mountains let some air in–but not enough.
Fellini in “Amarcord” finds a masterful balance between family life and the politics that surrounds it. By keeping the family firmly in the foreground, Fellini actually creates the kind of nuanced political film than Tornatore hopes for here. Tornatore seems confused about where to place his focus, and thus winds up focusing on nothing.
“Baarìa” also recalls the work of Bernardo Bertolucci, especially his political films “The Conformist” (1970) and “1900” (1976). The rise of the Communist Party is a major aspect of “1900,” but Bertolucci gets into the complexities of the social history, offering a sophisticated assessment as to why Communism spoke to the working class at that time.
Perhaps what Italian cinema has lost–which Tornatore’s career seems symptomatic of–is a taste for subtlety and complexity, for intellectual rigor.