Director Giuseppe Tornatore (Cinema Paradiso) was brought up in Bagheria (Baarìa in Sicilian) and this is his homage to the people and customs of his homeland which, despite the fascist wartime movement and subsequent aftermath, survived for rather longer than elsewhere.
The movie is a sweeping history of this Sicilian life from the 1930s to 1960s seen through the eyes of Peppino Torrenuova (Francesco Scianna) presented in a beautiful painterly style with a lush soundtrack from Ennio Morricone. This is a movie to wallow in and soak up the fantastic atmosphere created by Tornatore. Our hero Peppino is born into a family of peasant hill farmers near Baarìa in the early days of fascism and Mussolini with a lifestyle a million miles from that in mainland Italy. An early scene shows a hapless teacher engaged in trying to teach the schoolchildren, including our young Peppino, to speak Italian rather than their native Sicilian.
The film proceeds, after a rather hectic (and somewhat confusing opening), through the 1930s, the war years and the liberation by the Americans, to the post-war’s mafia-led society. Peppino soon comes to the conclusion that this state of affairs is little different from the previous fascist era and decides he must become a communist.
The movie then follows two strands: the development of Peppino’s political ambitions and a touching love story with his courtship and eventual marriage to the delectable Mannina (Margareth Madè). All of this is set against the continuing struggles of the locals to deal with the controlling mafia – often in the shape of landowner Don Giacinto (Lollo Franco).
The style is episodic and we get drawn into Peppino’s life with every minute we watch. The assortment of supporting characters (and their idiosyncrasies) makes it feel as if we are living with Peppino. He rises up the party hierarchy, he is very happy with Mannina and they have several children, and time passes… As we all do, Peppino reflects on his own life, his political impact and contribution to the wider world and ponders on how his soon-to-leave-the-nest son Pietro will fare.
A confusing (and slightly trite) ending takes nothing away from this ravishing movie. Watch it for both an insight into Sicilian life and for a wonderful cinematic experience. Also, don’t miss the DVD extras, including very interesting interviews with Giuseppe Tornatore, Ennio Morricone, and many of the actors. Also be amazed that the whole set of Bagheria was constructed from scratch in Tunisia.