Baarìa: A Microcosm of Sicilian history

By Niamh Cullen

A mother and her daughter pacing the floor of their tiny home, starving: ‘But it doesn’t matter that we haven’t eaten in a week, as long as the neighbours don’t notice’; a crowded, lively cinema audience who interrupt the man charged with narrating the film so many times that no one can hear the story and a near riot ensues. Giuseppe Tornatore’s latest film is an ambitious attempt to capture the mood of a whole town as it lives through more than forty years of history. Chaotic, cheerful and sad, it has occasional bursts of pure comedy – such as a character who walks into the chemist asking, deadpan, for ‘something to make him die’. His answer, when asked if he’d like his poison to be fast or slow acting, ‘well, I’d like to get home first’…

Even more than Tornatore’s classic Cinema Paradiso, Baarìa is a truly choral film, that tells the story of the small Sicilian town where it’s set through the lives of its characters, rather than the other way round. Apart from anything else, it’s a really beautiful film, and the cinematography perfectly evokes the harsh splendour of the landscape – the stone quarries and the dusty, arid farmland – just as it visually captures the atmosphere of the crumbling, chaotic grandeur of the town itself.

The story follows the life of Peppino, who we first see growing up in the 1930s at the height of fascist power. Tracing his life story from boyhood to old age, we see the narratives of national and local history constantly intertwined, from fascism and war to the great collective protests of the 1960s. Peppino’s schoolteacher is a zealous fascist who beats him when he refuses to sing a fascist hymn and forces the class to speak Italian instead of their native Sicilian dialect. We see Peppino’s brother reluctantly go to war and return barely recognisable at the same time as Peppino is getting more and more drawn into an idealistic movement; new to the Sicilian peasantry and finally promising them the social justice they have been vainly waiting for; the Communist Party. Communism was a huge force in post-war Italy, thanks to the part that the communist resistance fighters played in combating fascism during the war, and continued to attract huge numbers to its ranks right up to the 1960s. Often, this was the cause of conflict and division within families and communities as the Church urged its followers to have nothing to do with the evils of communism. Here we see Peppino reassuring his fiancée that contrary to popular rumours about communists, he ‘has not eaten a single child’. Even then, the couple have to elope before her family will accept the marriage.

Similar in some ways to Daniele Lucchetti’s excellent 2007 film My Brother is an only Child – set in a small town in the Italian south it follows the character of Accio as he grows up in a suffocating provincial atmosphere and gradually gets drawn into politics, first neofascism and then communism – Tornatore’s film is much less realistic in tone. It is clear that he is aiming to create more of a fable of Sicilian small town life than a realistic portrayal, despite the film’s evident political overtones. At times, this seems less than convincing and jars somewhat with the politics of the film; why is everything bathed in a golden light, with sumptuous orchestral music playing in the background when life was so harsh for the people of Bagheria in the 1930s? Was the grinding poverty and the backbreaking quarry work really not that bad? Baarìa is clearly a very personal film for Tornatore since he is narrating the story of his own hometown. Unfortunately, in his efforts to recreate and do justice to the world of his parents and grandparents – undoubtedly a rich one in many ways – he seems to have sacrificed a little realism for cinematographic beauty.

Baarìa is showing in the IFI until Saturday July 31.

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