It's interesting that I so recently saw I Am Love because as cold and restrained as most of that film was, Giuseppe Tornatore's Baaria is warm and gregarious. Tornatore is the Italian director who won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1988 with Cinema Paradiso, and after a foray into the thriller with The Unknown Woman, he's returned to his typical themes of family, history and memory.
Again the director uses a small boy as the audience proxy, little Peppino, the sassiest boy in the sassy village of Baaria. Baaria is the local slang for Tornatore's Sicilian hometown, Bagheria. How he manages to evoke the layout and architecture of a town that undergoes such changes over time is beyond me. Maybe he built a new one. In any case, the film follows Peppino as he struggles to make a living, even as a small boy, raise a family, and get involved in politics, which in Sicily can lead to a cracked head or worse.
Cinema is a big part of life for Peppino, because his dad is one of the two villagers who can read the title cards in silent film, plus he gets the inspiration for how to win his lady love from a Fred Astaire movie. Even though the girl openly insults a property owner who is supposed to be her fiance, her parents refuse a match with the impoverished Peppino. But undeterred, not only does he cross the cavernous dance hall floor, in which the men dance with men and women dance with women, to ask Mannina to dance, he locks himself in her house with her for hours. Whatever actually happened inside, they must of course then be married, his poverty notwithstanding. They are well suited for each other, this man who will ask a woman to dance, and this woman who says yes.
After an initial tragedy, they have a family, and Peppino travels in support of the Communist party, as well as to simply find work to make money. His children demonstrate the same force of personality that he and his wife have. After a long middle section, the final act folds back on the opening sometimes literally, as the old Peppino fulfills a local superstition, and then figuratively, as the young boy Peppino, walking in the modern day, finds a lost item and shrieks that it belongs to his "daughter." Peppino asks himself when he was dreaming, before, or now. However, the structure works as a representation of old age (and perhaps Alzheimer's), when the old times become new, and as tangible or more so, than the present day.
It's Tornatore, so it's gorgeous, even for rocky, dusty Sicily, and there is a great deal of humor infused throughout. I love the Sicilian insults hurled about that never seem to land a fatal blow. "I'll cut off your head and throw it into the sea! Now go buy me a knife!" It is a long movie, clocking in at 2 and a half hours, and the middle section dealing with Communism and land redistribution felt long. But those are the events that shaped Peppino and the modern Italian state, so there they are. The mafia are referred to, but aren't the focus of the film, which is refreshing to the American eye.
In 2009 it won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, but lost the 2010 Golden Globe to Haneke's The White Ribbon. Appropriate, I think, because it is a fabulous exploration of memory, but doesn't add anything particularly groundbreaking to the film canon, either in content or form. That said, they just don't make epics like this anymore.