'Baaria'

As a showcase for the worst tendencies of contempo Italian cinema, "Baaria" can't be beat.

Overblown in every sense, “Baaria,” Giuseppe Tornatore’s multi-decade evocation of life in the Sicilian town of Bagheria (“Baaria” in the local dialect) boasts large sets and extras by the thousands, but the vet helmer seems to have forgotten how to develop a scene, let alone a character. Awash in phony nostalgia, cheap sentimentalism and puffed-up orchestrations, the pic could lure in locals with an advertising blitz, but offshore prospects don’t look good.

Largely shot in Tunisia, the production reportedly cost between $35 million and $40 million, partly shouldered by Tunisian mogul Tarek Ben Ammar and his Eagle Pictures. Judging by the number of incomplete scenes and themes, it’s likely an even longer director’s cut, or possibly a miniseries, exists somewhere. At well over two hours, “Baaria” is already far too long.

The opening is a perfect example, set sometime in the early 20th century, when Tornatore’s birthplace, Bagheria was a fully independent town surrounded by greenery (it’s now practically an extension of Palermo). A young boy, running down an unpaved street as though his life depended on it, suddenly takes off and flies through the air, accompanied by music that swells so violently it would make the most experienced sailor seasick. By starting on such a note, Tornatore sets a tone that refuses to let up.

While lightly touching upon various aspects of Sicilian social change, “Baaria” follows the fortunes of the Torrenuova clan, a family of shepherds who never quite make good but manage to grow and survive through Fascism, WWII and the complex political power grabs that characterized postwar Italy. They’re peasants, occasionally working for Don Giacinto (Lollo Franco), a nasty landowner always looking to cheat the populace. That’s how Peppino’s social conscience is first aroused, initially as a boy (played at different stages by Giovanni Gambino and Davide Viviani) and then as an adult (Francesco Scianna), when he throws himself into working for the Communist Party.

Peppino has his eye on the beautiful Mannina (Margareth Made, a model making her screen debut), who returns his affections. Her parents aren’t too happy, but eventually they’re forced to relent and, apart from one stillbirth, the family grows by leaps and bounds. What’s going on inside Mannina’s head? Who knows, but obviously psychology isn’t important — far better to lay on vignette after vignette, often with name stars in disposable roles (Monica Bellucci, Luigi Lo Cascio, Donatella Finocchiaro, Raoul Bova).

As Bagheria expands, so, too, does Peppino’s political ambition. Tornatore occasionally mentions historical events in passing, such as the Salvatore Giuliano massacre, though few of these references will mean anything to non-Italian auds. Which wouldn’t be a problem if the helmer did something interesting with the scenes, rather than toss them into a pot so stuffed with ingredients that nothing takes on any individuality or defining flavor. (The press materials claim 35,000 extras were involved.)

A few actors bring their own personas with them, such as Lina Sastri as Mannina’s grandmother and, incongruously, a fortune-telling beggar, but the rest are largely interchangeable. Tornatore is excessively fond of match cuts, which, like his traveling shots, call attention to themselves without adding any depth or humor. Art direction is overly careful, but at least the street set does have that comfortably simulated feel akin to old Westerns. Color correction looks naggingly artificial.

Sound placement lacks nuance, and each character seems to be shouting rather than speaking. The best that can be said about Ennio Morricone’s omnipresent music is that it matches the film perfectly.

Baaria

Italy

Production

A Medusa Film presentation and production, in collaboration with Eagle Pictures. (International sales: Summit Entertainment, Santa Monica.) Produced by Giampaolo Letta, Mario Spedaletti. Executive producer, Mario Cotone, Exon Film. Coproducer, Tarek Ben Ammar. Directed, written by Giuseppe Tornatore.

Crew

Camera (color), Enrico Lucidi; editor, Massimo Quaglia; music, Ennio Morricone; production designer, Maurizio Sabatini; art director, Cosimo Gomez; costume designers, Luigi Bonanno, Antonella Balsamo; sound (Dolby Digital, dts), Faouzi Thabet, Francesco Vallocchia; assistant director, Alberto Mangiante; casting, Chiara Agnello. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (opener, competing), Sept. 2, 2009. (Also in Toronto Film Festival -- Special Presentations.) Running time: 163 MIN.

With

Francesco Scianna, Margareth Made, Nicole Grimaudo, Angela Molina, Lina Sastri, Salvo Ficarra, Valentino Picone, Gaetano Aronica, Alfio Sorbello, Luigi Lo Cascio, Enrico Lo Verso, Nino Frassica, Laura Chiatti, Michele Placido, Vincenzo Salemme, Giorgio Faletti, Corrado Fortuna, Paolo Briguglia, Leo Gullotta, Beppe Fiorello, Luigi Maria Burruano, Franco Scaldati, Aldo Baglio, Monica Bellucci, Donatella Finocchiaro, Marcello Mazzarella, Raoul Bova, Gabriele Lavia, Sebastiano Lo Monaco, Tony Sperandeo, Giovanni Gambino, Davide Viviani, Mariangela Di Cristina, Christian Canzoneri, Giuseppe Garufi, Gaetano Sciortino, Fabrizio Romano, Lollo Franco. (Italian dialogue, Sicilian dialect)

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