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‘Good Morning, Babylon’ (PG-13)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 28, 1987

Taviani brothers Paolo and Vittorio have created something straight from the heart in "Good Morning Babylon." Steeped in sentimentality and golden light, the film, like the brothers' "Night of the Shooting Stars," is a cinematic yarn, true to the storytelling tradition of their native Tuscany. But although most of the film is enjoyable for its romantic fervor -- for Hollywood and America -- "Babylon" gets bogged down in its own plot.

In the early 1900s, an Italian family of architectural restorers (a dominating father and his seven sons) goes bust after redoing a beautiful Romanesque church. The two most talented brothers, Nicola and Andrea, emigrate to America. In Hollywood, they hook up with would-be starlets Edna (Greta Scacchi) and Mabel (Desiree Becker) and get jobs on the set of Hollywood's pioneer romantic, D.W. Griffith. Eventually Griffith (played with delectable swagger by Charles Dance) finds out about the brothers' talents and has them create the plaster elephants for his epic, "Intolerance."

The story is complete fancy, based only lightly on reality. But the setting is, after all, Hollywood -- the cutting edge in fancy, a state of heady mind rather than real estate. And what headier time than the early days, when the company Griffith kept included such legends as Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Mack Sennett?

But after Hollywood, "Babylon" gets tiresome. After marrying the starlets, the brothers fall out. They meet again in their old village years later during the liberation of Italy and -- in a ludicrously contrived scene -- film each other as they die of war wounds.

Vincent Spano (who plays Nicola) and Joaquim De Almeida (Andrea) look the parts, at least. Early on, surrounded by family and speaking Italian, their performances are endearing -- two cute Italian boys who echo each other, read each other's thoughts. By the time they leave for America, your anticipation is high. But their performances suffer English poorly. The dialogue turns wooden. And it's hard to believe two brothers who grew up together speaking Italian suddenly rap only in English. (Clearly, the Tavianis meant the movie to appeal to American audiences.)

Despite it all, though, the situations the brothers go through in America are immensely enjoyable. From their initial porthole peek at the New York City skyline, to the daily Hollywood tram rides from the set to the noisy birdhouse where the brothers live as caretakers, to the brothers' basking in the thunderous applause at the premiere of "Intolerance," "Babylon" is an immigrant's glorious fantasy. But the Tavianis -- whom you can almost see watching the daily rushes of "Babylon," misty-eyed -- get a little overwhelmed by their own rhapsodic vision.

Copyright The Washington Post

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