Baarìa – the latest film from Cinema Paradiso director Giuseppe Tornatore – is big. I don’t really know how else to say it. It’s not so much a tasting plate of Italian history as it is an all-you-can-eat-buffet of all things Italy: from the food, to the gesticulating citizens, to the superstitious elderly people and even the rampant corruption that pervades the entire nation. If it’s Italian, it’s in this movie.
Tornatore calls this film a tribute to his home town of Bagheria in Sicily (nicknamed Baarìa for short) and follows three generations of idealistic men, who I assume are versions of his grandfather, his father and himself. It spans almost 100 years, and we are witness not only to the lives of these three men and their extended family, but also the events that shake and shape Italy itself, including wars, political upheavals, modernisation and the dreaded introduction of hippie rebellion. The director pulls every trick out of the book to turn this from a boring historical text into a whimsical flight of fancy; an almost cartoonish, whip-fast retelling of his ancestral past. To his credit, he is able to condense almost ten decades’ worth of content into a two-and-a-half hour film. Why, that’s almost eight months covered per minute! But the film moves at such a breakneck speed, I found myself at a distance from all the characters – left unaware of their motives, and their desires, as if there only reason for existing was to grow old and die … quickly!
The film focuses primarily on the life of Peppino – played by Francesco Scianna – son of a humble shepherd. He has two loves in his life: the first is Mannina (Margareth Made), his future wife; the second is Communism, his lifelong passion. Baarìa covers every significant event of his life, right up until he sees his arty, photographer son – who I assume is meant to be Tornatore – off to university. And this, ultimately, is Baarìa’s biggest problem. After spending two and a half hours with countless characters that we don’t quite care that much about – and a protagonist whose dual loves are never fully justified or explained – we are asked to feel emotional about the departure of Peppino’s son, or rather the director’s own avatar. And it is then you realise that this is the ultimate vanity project: a 100-year epic about the micro and macro events that forged Giuseppe Tornatore into the filmmaker he is today. I’m all for bloated, confusing, directorial vanity projects like Synecdoche New York and 8 ½. But Synecdoche New York and 8 ½ this ain’t.
Still, it has a nice score from the legendary Ennio Morricone, a sweet sense of humour, and at least a couple vignettes that make it worth watching. And hey, it only cost $30 million. I can’t remember any big budget American film with as big a cast or as impressive a set design as Baarìa. Just goes to show the Italians still do excess best.