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Sunday, October 16, 2011

BAARIA -- DVD review by porfle

Writer-director Giuseppe Tornatore (CINEMA PARADISO) waxes nostalgic about his Sicilian hometown in the lavish BAARIA (2009), with mixed results.

For two-and-a-half hours, we follow the evolution of Baaria (nickname for "Bagheria") from a small village in the 20s where everyone knows each other to a bustling, impersonal city of the 70s, through the eyes of three generations of the Torrenuova family.  The main character is Peppino, whom we first meet as a boy earning money for his poor family as a shepherd's helper.  We'll see him grow to manhood (handing the role over to Francesco Scianna), start a family, and become a politically-active Communist whose pursuit of justice for the common man will become a lifelong obsession.

The story is a patchwork of episodic impressions that are never developed enough to build very much emotional resonance--in fact, various brief vignettes come and go so quickly that BAARIA sometimes resembles an extended trailer for a better film.  The handsome Scianna manages to make Peppino a likable character but we rarely feel his passion, whether courting his future wife Mannina (Margareth Madè in her film debut) over the objections of her anti-Communist parents or wading through the stormy seas of political unrest.

A lot depends on the expressive faces of some of the actors, especially the children who play little Peppino and his own offspring later on, and the older actors such as Lina Sastri (as Mannina's mother), whose careworn features add their own unwritten detail to the story.  The film is populated by so many peripheral characters that it's hard to keep track of them all, but Tornatore has cast all of these roles well and they add to the cumulative impression of his boyhood town that the director wants to convey. 

All of this is beautifully filmed both in the actual town of Bagheria and in an expensive recreation (in Tunisia) that's meticulously detailed and bathed in nostalgic ambiance (with a score by Ennio Morricone).  But it is, for the most part, a montage of experiences that rarely pauses long enough for us to get deeply involved in any of them.  With such a rich setting, I found myself yearning for a more engaging story in addition to a series of interesting but somewhat superficial events. 

Then I wondered if perhaps the very superficiality of Peppino's political exploits was meant to emphasize how much he was missing by neglecting to appreciate what a wonderful wife and family he had.  Throughout the film, we see them going about their lives and creating memories that he would never share due to his frequent absences.  Only when he ultimately fails to accomplish any of the goals he's strived for over the years does it apparently dawn on him that his priorities have been misplaced all along.

With that in mind, the strangely surrealistic final sequence of BAARIA, which is ambiguous enough that viewers must make the effort to sort out its meaning on their own, ends the film on an optimistic note.  I'm not sure I completely got what Tornatore is trying to say here, but I have my own interpretation and I'm sticking with it.  Anyway, it helps bind the narrative's various threads together in a more satisfying way and make the experience of watching this long, difficult film a bit more worthwhile. 

The DVD from Image Entertainment is in 1.78:1 widescreen with Dolby 5.1 sound (Italian language with English subtitles.)  Extras include a subtitled director's commentary, photo and poster galleries, deleted scenes, an interview with Tornatore, and featurettes on the making of the film and its subsequent promotion.

In the commentary, Tornatore states that "this film was the longing to express, to settle, to distill all that our relationship with our birthplace represents" with a mixture of historical facts and his own sensory impressions and hazy memories, "just for the pleasure of evoking (them)."  BAARIA is definitely the film he set out to make in order to do all that, and I suspect he may be its biggest fan.  I'm not, but I don't regret experiencing this interesting and finely-wrought piece of cinema.

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