Dir: Paolo Virzi. Italy. 2003. 106mins.

This contemporary commedia all'italiana squeezes some enjoyable mileage out of the old "hick in the big city" trope, in its tale of a 13-year-old girl who moves to Rome from the provinces, and is immediately caught up in the factional politics of her new high school class. But the country-city divide is just one strand of a dense and ambitious script, which juggles six major and more than a dozen minor characters with some skill. It confirms director Virzi's return to form after two disappointing films, and has notched up satisfying screen averages in its first two weekends at home, one of the busiest times of the year at the Italian box office.

It treads similar ground to Gabriele Muccino's Remember Me but is more incisive and less of a moral fence-sitter; if it eventually performs less well at home, this is because it follows on from a couple of duds for director Virzi, and because 01 Distribution lacks the distribution-exhibition synergy of Medusa. Local references lend authority; but they will also limit this film's chance of doing much business overseas.

Paolo Virzi's first big splashdown was Ovosodo, the 1997 film that bagged him the Special Jury Prize at that year's Venice Festival. Caterina Goes To Town draws on two things that made Ovosodo more than a simple generational comedy. The first is a strong sense of place and social ambience: there it was the depressed, post-industrial port town of Livorno; here it is the Rome of rich kids playing at politics, love and shoplifting in the void left by their absent parents, who are too busy or too screwed-up to lend guidance. The second is a strong central performance by the likeable but passive innocent who carries the narrative. Ovosodo had Edoardo Gabbriellini, who went on to direct; Caterina Goes To Town has the promising (but still very young) first-timer Alice Teghil.

Sergio Castellitto's performance in Marco Bellocchio's The Hour Of Religion alerted us to the fact that he has the range for more complex roles than the period comedies and biopics he is usually associated with. Here he plays Caterina's father Giancarlo, a teacher with literary ambitions who believes that the family's move to Rome will unlock the doors that provincial life has kept barred. But his resentments against the Roman establishment spiral into full-scale psychosis when he disgraces himself on a TV chat show.

It's a difficult character to pull off - hardly sympathetic (Giancarlo's contemptuous, offhand treatment of his wife, played with precarious neurotic energy by Margerita Buy, seals our dislike) but made compelling by some excellent writing and Castellitto's febrile performance, which carries shades of those doomed and often arrogant bourgeois idealists that Alberto Sordi specialised in.

Castellitto is almost upstaged, though, by Claudio Amendola, in the role of a former neo-Fascist who has reinvented himself as a respectable right-wing politician. The accuracy of the portrait is at its most acute in a key wedding scene set in a Far Right stronghold south of Rome. There is a risk of caricature here, as too in the depiction of Caterina's classmates, split between right-wing mobile-phone dollybirds and left-wing trustafarians. But at least the caricatures are funny, and are mostly at the service of the film's moral-emotional parabola, which ends (and this is more a forgone conclusion than a spoiler) with Caterina discovering the value of those slow but genuine country folk she left behind.

Production cos: Cattleya, Rai Cinema
Int'l sales:
Rai Trade
It dis:
01 Dist
Riccardo Tozzi, Giovanni Stabilini, Marco Chimenz
Francesco Bruni, Paolo Virzi
Arnaldo Catinari
Cecilia Zanuso
Prod des:
Tonino Zera
Carlo Virzi
Main cast:
Alice Teghil, Sergio Castellitto, Margherita Buy, Claudia Amendola