Italy-Spain-UK. 2004. 121 mins.

Don't Move is worth any number of seminars on the state of Italian cinema, and is ample proof that there is life in the old dog yet. The cynical might object that this is because of a standout performance by Spanish star Penelope Cruz, who does something akin to Charlize Theron in Monster, sending a career that has been on creative pause since All About My Mother into sudden fast forward by going magnificently ugly and awkward.

But actor Sergio Castellitto's second directorial effort has much else to recommend it - including his own strong performance as a surgeon with a strange, unconfessable love affair in his past. The narrative frame - the surgeon's anxious, memory-spiked vigil over his teenage daughter, who is being operated on in his own hospital after a motorbike accident - is the stuff of Hollywood melodrama.

It is the way these bare bones are fleshed out, though, that makes Don't Move so refreshingly original and emotionally compelling, rescuing it from B-movie schmaltz and pushing it into the morally demanding realm of Almodovar or Kieslowski.

Released on 200 copies by Medusa in Italy on 12 March, the film can expect to perform strongly at home, where the Cruz effect is matched by the high celebrity profile of Castellitto. Overseas prospects look the best of any Italian film since Salvatores' I'm Not Scared, the Italian submission for the Academy Awards' Best Foreign Language Film; Capitol Films can expect to do brisk business on this title over the coming months, adding other territories to the few (France, Japan and part of Latin America) already confirmed.

A family affair, the film is based on the prize-winning novel by Castellito's wife, Italo-Irish actress-turned-writer Margaret Mazzantini, who puts in the briefest signature appearance at the end of the film. The couple's son Pietro also has a small role, playing his father's character Timoteo as a young boy. Husband and wife worked on the script together - an exercise that is dangerous in itself, doubly so in view of the fact that Mazzantini was adapting her own book.

But it seems to have worked: Castellitto has found a vivid visual equivalent for Mazzantini's uncompromisingly literary prose, while Mazzantini's strong story and characters rescue her husband from the unfocused whimsy of his first directorial outing, Libero Burro, which had a brief box-office life at home.

The film opens on a bird's-eye-view crane shot of a traffic accident in the pouring rain (it's a bit like the final shot of Tom Tykwer's Heaven in reverse). Fifteen-year-old Angela has been knocked off her Vespa, and is rushed to hospital, where the reanimation anaesthetist (Angela Finocchiaro in a fine minor role) realises with horror that she is the daughter of Timoteo (Castellitto), one of the hospital's top surgeons.

While Ada and a colleague struggle to save Angela's life, Timoteo sits outside the operating theatre, rerunning in his mind (and therefore on the screen) a tempestuous, tragic love affair that began not long before Angela was born. Audiences need to be wide-awake here, and watch the characters' haircuts, which are the only obvious sign that we are in flashback mode - apart from a few sepia-tinted scenes from Timoteo's childhood.

Respected in his profession, married to a beautiful, cultured and understanding wife (Claudia Gerini, currently getting stateside exposure as Pontius Pilate's compassionate wife in The Passion Of The Christ), Timoteo is prey to dark dissatisfactions and wild urges which come to a head one hot summer's day when his car breaks down in a godforsaken, half-built outer suburb of Rome as he is driving down to his seaside house.

Looking for a mechanic, he meets an awkward, slightly retarded, cynical but childlike, vulnerable but strong Italo-Albanian woman called (with a certain irony) Italia (Cruz), and ends up raping her, to his - not to mention her - shock and dismay. Against all the odds, the relationship between the odd couple builds into a passionate and ultimately destructive love.

Aided and abetted by spot-on make-up, costume and production design, Cruz is never less than fascinating as the witless, kind, determined Italia. As in Monster, part of the fun comes from watching a celebrity actress become almost unrecognisable. With her badly-applied mascara, trailer-trash blonde highlights, sluttish mini skirts and thrift-shop synthetic tops, with her stiff, bandy-legged high-heel waddle and her rag doll floppiness when passion threatens, she is an entirely believable denizen of the urban and social borderlands.

Only for a few, thankfully brief moments does her Italia seem just a little too stylised and mannered. But Castellitto's directorial authority goes beyond the ability to squeeze commitment from his actors (including himself) and nail down a strong script.

There are some unexpected auteur touches in Don't Move, sealed by Facing Windows cinematographer Gianfilippo Corticelli's inventive use of the widescreen format (events happening at the edges of the screen are sometimes used as ironic glosses on the main action). And there is some nice but never in-your-face play with symbols of faith, including crosses and bells.

By the time the over-the-top chords of Italian stadium rocker Vasco Rossi's specially-commissioned song Un Senso swell up at the end of the film, Don't Move has shown enough tough emotional sinew to earn this last-minute tug at the heart-stings.

Prod cos: Cattleya, Alquimia Cinema, The Producers Films (Don't Move)
It dist:
Int'l sales:
Capitol Films
Riccardo Tozzi, Giovanni Stabilini, Marco Chimenz
Margaret Mazzantini, Sergio Castellitto, based on Mazzantini's novel of the same name
Gianfilippo Corticelli
Prod des:
Francesco Frigeri
Patrizio Marone
Lucio Godoy
Main cast:
Penelope Cruz, Sergio Castellitto, Claudia Gerini, Angela Finocchiaro, Marco Giallini, Elena Perino