Dir: Silvio Soldini Italy/Switzerland 2007. 115 mins.
The strongest of the five Italian films that received their national premieres at the Rome Film Fest, Days and Clouds (which also played in Toronto and London) is a fine piece of emotional eye-on-the-object filmmaking from homegrown auteur Silvio Soldini and regular screenplay sidekick Doriana Leondeff, supported on the writing side by Francesco Piccolo and Federica Pontremoli.

Coming on as a white-collar version of a Ken Loach drama about the human stories behind the employment statistics, the film takes a fairly average married couple living in the Italian port city of Genoa and explores, with scientific rigour, the strains and cracks that open up in the relationship when the husband loses his job. If there's a niggling weakness in Days and Clouds, it's the flipside of its authenticity: too much time is spent making the characters real, and not enough on making the story dramatically interesting. The result is a film that we admire more than really engage with.

After the surprise success of Bread and Tulips in 2000, Soldini is one of the few contemporary Italian directors to have built up a certain brand loyalty among domestic audiences. Locals will be swayed not only by the way the film tunes in to the current Italian climate of micro-economic anxiety, but also by the presence of small-scale marquee names Margherita Buy and Antonio Albanese (an alternative TV comedian turned serious thespian) in the lead roles. Distributed by Warner Bros Italia, the film debuted at the end of October with a respectable 724,000 euros first-weekend haul, and high screen averages that bode well for a healthy run. Overseas takings will be more contained, though Days and Clouds is likely to be more widely seen than Soldini's last, the baroquely-plotted bittersweet comedy Agatha and the Storm, which notched up only a handful of mostly European sales.

Perhaps the most convincing thing about Days and Clouds is the emotional honesty, and accuracy, with which it focuses on the dynamics of an old, lived-in relationship. Elsa (Buy) and Michele (Albanese) have been married for twenty years. Though their lifestyle is modest, Michele's managerial job has guaranteed them enough financial security to allow Elsa to give up work and take a degree in art restoration, and to provide their only child Alice (Alba Rohrwacher) with the money she needed to open a cafe-restaurant.

At the beginning of the film dour, passive-aggressive Michele reveals to his wife that he hasn't been going to work for a while - ever since he was ousted from the company by his partners. There are shades of Laurence Cantet's L'Emploi du Temps here - but that's a pathological case study, whereas Days and Clouds is more interested in tracing just how easy it can be for a couple to slide from bourgeois ease to the breadline in the course of a few short months. As Michele embarks on a desultory job search, Elsa is forced to put her art restoration career on hold, juggling a job in a call centre with another as secretary in a shipping firm. Buy, usually typecast as a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, is good here in a stronger role as the protected wife who discovers a healthy survival instinct, and some unexpected extramarital action, as her husband spirals into a state of paralysed self-hatred - but who at the same time has too much affection for her partner simply to cut free.

Though the material is potentially bleak, the script allows for humour too, especially in a midterm section where Michele and two former employees find work renovating apartments; and the overriding message is an optimistic one, about the fundamental resilience of well-seasoned relationships. There's nothing polished about the look of the film: Argentinian DoP Ramiro Civita's photography keeps things close and gritty, with plenty of handheld work; interiors are claustrophobic (even more so after the couple's enforced move into a smaller flat) and what's outside provides small relief: Genoa is filmed either as a ground-level maze of airless, narrow streets or, in a few placing shots, as a vertiginous, disorienting tumble of rooftops leading down to a port where the cranes stand ominously still.

Silvio Soldini

Production company
Lumiere & Co

Amka Films
Rtsi-Televisione Svizzera

International sales
Adriana Chiesa Enterprises
+39 06 8086 052

Lionello Cerri

Tiziana Soudani

Doriana Leondeff
Francesco Piccolo
Federica Pontremoli
Silvio Soldini

Ramiro Civita

Production design
Paola Bizzari

Carlotta Cristiani

Giovanni Venosta

Main cast
Antonio Albanese
Margherita Buy
Alba Rohrwacher
Giuseppe Battiston