Political controversy kept Nanni Moretti's controversial The Caiman on the front page and helped it to a sound opening at the box office.

The film opened in Italy on 380 prints on Friday, earning $481,000 (Euros 400,000) onits first day.

It wasthe widest release to date for Moretti, whose last film, 2001's TheSon's Room, won the Palme d'Or in Cannes and grossed over $7.2m( Euros 6m) at the Italian box office.

Withthe film's release coming just two weeks away from one of the most acrimoniousgeneral elections Italy has known, The Caiman andits full-frontal attack on Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi providedplenty of front-page fodder for the national dailies over the weekend.

Debatehas primarily centred over whether Moretti's film can swing votes to theleft-wing opposition, currently ahead in the opinion polls.

Morettihas often portrayed Italian politics in his films, such as 1989's PalombellaRossa or 1998's April, whichwas made between the time Berlusconi first won elections in 1994 and his defeatin 1996.

In2002, he took a self-proclaimed break from film-making to spearhead the grass-rootsGirotondi movement, in protest at the Berlusconi government's justice reforms -seen by many as an attempt to save the prime minister and some of his closeassociates from corruption charges.

But inhis first TV interview since 1985, Moretti distanced himself from the politicaldebate.

"Thefilm's objective isn't to sway votes," the director said, adding that hebelieves most voters made their minds up months ago. "Even as a spectatorI never thought that was the aim of a film. A director must simply try to makegood films.

Some peoplethought I would make a propaganda film, as if they had never seen any of myprevious pictures."

However,like other politicians, Berlusconi didn't shy away from talking about TheCaiman.

"Iwill absolutely not go and see it," he said - but he later began apolitical conference saying, "I am the Caiman."

Meanwhile,the film was well received by Italian critics. National daily La Repubblica,for example,called it: "the director's most mature work to date."

Ironically,the film received virtually no mention - or publicity - on four ofItaly's six leading news programmes.

The networkscited Italy's par condicio law - which guarantees that all the main politicalforces have equal media treatment, in terms of time and space. It also largelyforbids political commercials on TV or on the radio.

Nevertheless,some TV chiefs distanced themselves from what most Italians consider aninordinately restrictive law.

"TheCaiman is full of allusions to Berlusconi. Now given that nofilms with any references to [opposition leader] Romano Prodi have beenannounced, TG2 has decided not to to talk about this film, so as not to violatethe par condicio law," TG2 head Mauro Mazza said, reading a statementduring the network's evening news programme.

He added:"It is a cage Rai information is confined to." Berlusconiowns the three Mediaset channels. The prime minister's government appointsmanagers at the three state-owned RAI networks.