"Good Morning, Babylon," the fable by filmmakers Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, the Italian brothers who work in tandem, proves a visually lush, but awkward experiment in double-entendre, a wildly melodramatic tale of two Tuscan artisans who come to Hollywood to decorate the sets of D.W. Griffith's "Intolerance."
Griffith's silent, antiwar classic takes place in part in Babylon, and the babble of the international crew recalls the tower built of gibberish -- complexities crowded into this country fable of brotherhood. Vincent Spano and Joaquim De Almeida star as the spunky Tuscans who take their gift for restoring ancient frescoes and turn it to making celluloid ones instead.
When the family restoration business fails, Papa Bonanni (Omero Antonutti), their father sends his favorite sons off to the New World. Their journey proves bittersweet and fanciful, but so painfully contrived it finally chokes on its own circular storyline. It seems an even greater failure, given the Tavianis' great talent for myth-making. They are indisputably deft masters of pastoral magic and the minstrel's art.
The provincial filmmakers have heretofore looked at the society of Italy, specifically their home town of Tuscany, with such films as "Padre Padrone" and the stunning "Night of the Shooting Stars." They seem out of their element in their first English-speaking drama, in part a paean to the genesis of cinema and the evolution of craftsmanship.
The Tavianis, children of World War II, are soldiers of cinema, battling old dreams. Naturally they were drawn to "Intolerance," which found no audience in the war-mongering America of 1917. And like Griffith, the Tavianis would salute the evolution of mankind. Despite the strife, we have come from Michelangelo to Griffith to "Good Morning, Babylon."
After a somber opening in Italy, the story starts rolling when the Bonanni brothers arrive in California where they help build the Italian pavilion, a Tower of Jewels that was the talk of the San Franciso Exposition. Griffith, humbled by the Italian film epic "Cabiria" by Giovanni Patrone, resolves to outdo Patrone with an epic of his own. But he must have Italian artisans to realize his vision. (The Tavianis indulge in much paisano back-patting.) The Bonannis, pretending to have been the foremen of the Expo crew, finagle their way into jobs, crafting monstrous elephants for Griffith's project. Their happiness is complete when both fall in love with movie extras.
The brothers are rather likable scamps, who must be "always and forever equal," warns their somber father, "or you'll grow to hate each other." Till the prophecy is fulfilled, Nicola and Andrea are closer than grade-school girlfriends. They even fall in love at the same time with dancing girls Edna and Mabel. Marriage and pregnancy follows for each; then tragedy befalls the Bonannis and their separate journeys begin, the brothers reunited finally on a Tuscan battlefield.
Spano, who costarred in "Baby, It's You," is Nicola, and the Portuguese-born De Almeida is Andrea. And they convey a convincing kinship, working first in Italian and then English dialogue. Greta Scacchi, an actress who makes hearts pittypat but has yet to land a good part, is Mabel, a dancing girl who falls for Nicola. And Desiree Becker, a Luxembourg-born actress, makes her English-language movie debut as Mabel's bosom buddy Edna.
They're cute with their tops dangling off, while their Old Country boys make love with everything but their boots on. Meatball macho. Scacchi gets caught in a silly speech about the free-spirited days of movie-making: "Let's just promise not to forget this Hollywood of ours is so wonderful." But she and Becker give the picture its joyousness.
Charles Dance, a star of the PBS series "Jewel in the Crown," comes up with a bluegrass accent the likes of which Kentucky has never heard. Dance certainly plays Griffith bigger than life, as if he were trying for Abraham Lincoln. Like Dance's performance, "Good Morning, Babylon" is overdrawn. It is loaded down with cosmic communications between the father in Italy and his blood-bound sons. The Tavianis toyed -- and had as little success -- with out-of-body surrealism in "Kaos."
The dialogue is often speechy as written by the Tavianis and Tonino Guerra from a story treatment by Lloyd Fonvielle, who wrote the abominable "The Bride" and cowrote the grody "Lords of Discipline." These master filmmakers nevertheless offer flashes of visual virtuosity, but also are guilty of some sloppy lapses, as when these turn-of-the-century heroes are clearly standing on 1980s concrete by the San Francisco Cannery. And when the brothers are chasing fakey fireflies, we shouldn't be thinking that they aren't indigenous to California. We should be swept up in the romance of the moment -- boys, girls, glitter and glowworms.
In a way, the Tavianis have made a movie about themselves, a noble failure about Italian immigrants who come to America and make movies, adapting Old World techniques to the brash New World. Failed genius in itself is fascinating though -- often it's the dress rehearsal for the next "Night of the Shooting Stars."
Good Morning, Babylon, at the Key, is rated PG-13 for exposed breasts.