Italian actress Maria Grazia Cucinotta arrives for the screening of the film 'Baaria' which opens the 66th edition of the Venice Film Festival in Venice, Italy, Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2009. (Photo: AP)

Italian actress Maria Grazia Cucinotta arrives for the screening of the film 'Baaria' which opens the 66th edition of the Venice Film Festival in Venice, Italy, Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2009. (Photo: AP)

Giuseppe Tornatore’s heartfelt tribute to his Sicilian hometown, “Baaria,” could be about anyone’s hometown, as long as it’s the centre of their universe, the director says.

“Baaria,” an epic tale spanning three generations from the 1930s to modern times, has the rise of fascism, the Second World War and Italy’s postwar political jockeying as its backdrop. With a price tag of US$35.5 million, it is among the most expensive Italian films ever and the first to open the Venice Film Festival in 20 years.

The movie is the longtime dream of Tornatore, who won the Oscar in 1998 for “Cinema Paradiso,” — although the 53-year-old director said he thought he would end up doing it later in his life.

“The film doesn’t want to be just about Sicily, Sicily, Sicily,” Tornatore told reporters Wednesday ahead of its premiere. “The idea was to tell the life of a chorus of characters inside a microcosm, which is a village, where you hear continually the echo of everything is happening around you, the echo of everything that is happening far away.”

“(It’s) about a place that ends up being a bit of an allegory of all the places where we were born,” he added.

In trying to recreate the “Baaria” of his childhood and trace its trajectory through the lives of its inhabitants, the director employed 63 professional actors, 147 nonprofessional actors and 35,000 extras.

The film was shot mostly in Tunisia, where the set designers erected a likeness of Bagheria, the Italian name of the town known as “Baaria” in the Sicilian dialect. Over the course of the movie, the set of “Baaria” expanded from a village surrounded by arid hills to a town of low-rise buildings teeming with traffic.

Ennio Morricone, who rose to fame for his music for Sergio Leone’s 1960s westerns, composed the score, his eighth for a Tornatore film. He said it was important for a composer not to overdo the film musically.

“Despite loving the film very much, I believe I didn’t go overboard this time. I didn’t shoot all the artillery toward the sky I believe, except in some moments,” Morricone said.

At the centre of the story is Peppino, played by the Italian actor Franceso Scianna, who himself was born in Bagheria and left at age nine.

Peppino’s childhood is one of hardship and stubbornness. The boy is sent racing across town to get cigarettes for men playing cards for a 20 cent reward that he refuses when the men tease him. He is rammed against a tree when he comes up short on his olive-picking quota and he works as an isolated shepherd for months at a time. Throughout it all, he has the love and encouragement of his father.

Peppino falls in love with a local beauty, played by Margareth Made in her first acting role, and after the Second World War becomes a devoted communist and a politician.

Tornatore said the movie is about civil responsibility and morality — something that he believes has been lost in modern Italy.

“I grew up in a family that didn’t just teach us how to dress for school, or how to hold a fork. One of the first things you needed to learn was how to behave in the world, how to respect others and above all, to dream,” Tornatore said. “We learned how important civil responsibility is. This is one of the things, one of the many things, lost in our country.”

Tornatore quotes a character from Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s book “The Leopard,” who claimed that all young men should leave Sicily before they turned 17 to avoid absorbing the typical Sicilian flaws.

“As I went away at 27, I absorbed all the flaws,” Tornatore said.

The Venice Film Festival this year runs from Sept. 2-12 and will show some 80 films from 32 countries. U.S. and Italian films dominate the schedule, with 17 and 22 entries respectively. –Toronto Sun