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Exploding the myths surrounding Italy’s unification in the 19th century should be heady stuff, but Mario Martone’s “We Believed” is unrelentingly flat and numbingly long. Timed to coincide with the country’s 150th anniversary celebration in 2011, Martone’s costumer follows the nation’s difficult birth from the 1820s to the 1870s, when conflicting interests — north vs. south, monarchist vs. republican — made the path to unity fraught with difficulty. Martone confuses dialogue with speechifying, and lensing is strictly smallscreen material. Non-Italos will get lost in the historical record, while even locals are unlikely to stay seated whether at cinemas or home.

A lot of money — between $7.6 and 8.8 million — went into making “We Believed” look authentic, but somehow the producers forgot that an accretion of historical characters and detail still needs to be made human. The great shame here is that the subject is terrific, and the opportunity for a much needed self-examination long overdue. Pity should go to Italy’s schoolchildren, already uninspired by history lessons, who will be forced to sit through this yawner; better they watch Visconti’s “The Leopard,” which reveals the true nature of Italy’s fractious relationship with its diverse parts far more acutely and movingly.

Three young men from the Bourbon-ruled Kingdom of the Two Sicilies dream of a unified Italy: Domenico (Edoardo Natoli), Salvatore (Luigi Pisani) and Angelo (Andrea Bosca). Inspired by Giuseppe Mazzini (Toni Servillo) and his talk of a single nation ruled along egalitarian, republican lines, they’re radicalized in Paris and frequent the salon of charismatic Princess Cristina di Belgiojoso (Francesca Inaudi, and, later in life, Anna Bonaiuto). Hot-headed Angelo, with his propensity toward political nihilism, thinks Salvatore is a spy and kills him.

A few decades later, Domenico (now played by Luigi Lo Cascio) and Angelo (Valerio Binasco) still work toward the cause despite deep disappointment with the failure of the short-lived Roman Republic. Angelo’s violent leanings move him away from Mazzini’s circle, while Domenico’s dreams of a republican nation are dashed on the rocks of pragmatism, and he eventually puts his hopes in Garibaldi’s populist movement.

No one here, neither the three Sicilians (loosely based on minor figures), nor the numerous historical characters weaving in and out, speak normally: Instead they’re forced to drone on in platitudes and declarations, turning some of the most fascinating people in the nation’s history into bores. A huge amount of material is covered, most importantly the bitter fight between idealists who believed in a radical democracy and the power-brokers up north more interested in putting their Savoy king on the throne of a united country.

Italy is still dealing with the repercussions of this conflict, and the north’s high-handed mistreatment of the south. The past tense in the pic’s title addresses not just the delusion felt by the historical players when their idealistic struggles were betrayed, but also contempo Italians who’ve been fed on romantic legends of unity. Martone throws in a few anachronistic elements, such as a modern unfinished concrete structure, to prod auds into making parallels between then and now, but they’re too minor and too subtle, overwhelmed by the pic’s episodic nature and verbal bombast.

After a number of years devoted to theater, Martone (“The Smell of Blood,” “Rehearsal for War”) seems to shy away from instilling any scene with too much drama — the attempted assassination of Napoleon III is especially weak — yet by dampening key events, he loses the spirit of excitement that invests political theories with a sense of do-or-die urgency. Presumably he wants to foreground the heroism of individual ideals rather than history’s grand sweep, but he’s allowed the lead-weight script to quash all sense of excitement. Appropriate music, awash in Verdi, Rossini and Bellini, too often repeats the same themes.

We Believed

Italy-France

  • Production: An 01 Distribution release (in Italy) of a Palomar, Les Films d'Ici production in collaboration with Feltrinelli, Rai Cinema, Rai Fiction, with the participation of ARTE France. (International sales: Rai Trade, Rome.) Produced by Carlo degli Esposti, Conchita Airoldi, Giorgio Magliulo. Executive producer, Patrizia Massa; co-producer, Serge Lalou. Directed by Mario Martone. Screenplay, Martone, Giancarlo de Cataldo, inspired by the novel by Anna Banti.
  • Crew: Camera (color), Renato Berta; editor, Jacopo Quadri, music, Hubert Westkemper; production designer, Emita Frigato; costume designer, Ursula Patzak; sound (Dolby Digital), Gaetano Carito, Maricetta Lombardo, Silvia Moraes; associate producer, Carlo Cresto-Dina; assistant directors, casting, Paola Rota, Raffaele di Florio. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (competing), Sept. 7, 2010. Running time: 202 MIN.
  • With: With: Luigi Lo Cascio, Valerio Binasco, Francesca Inaudi, Andrea Bosca, Edoardo Natoli, Luigi Pisani, Guido Caprino, Michele Riondino, Andrea Renzi, Renato Carpentieri, Ivan Franek, Stefano Cassetti, Franco Ravera, Roberto de Francesco, Toni Servillo, Luca Barbareschi, Fiona Shaw, Luca Zingaretti, Anna Bonaiuto, Alfonso Santagata, Peppino Mazzotta. (Italian, French, Sicilian dialect, English dialogue)
  • Music By: