Dir: Marco Bellocchio. Italy. 2003. 105 mins.

Marco Bellocchio's passionate but controlled psychological study of Red Brigade terrorism is not the masterpiece that some Italian critics would claim; nor was Bellocchio 'robbed' of the Golden Lion at this year's Venice festival, which went to a better film, Andrey Zvyagintsev's The Return.

But Buongiorno, Notte is still a compelling re-evocation of the anni di piombo (Years of Lead), between 1978 and 1980, when 91 'enemies of the state' - including the president of the Christian Democrat party, Aldo Moro - were murdered by Red Brigade Terrorists.

Good Morning, Night (the title is adapted from an Emily Dickinson poem) avoids the plodding docu-drama approach of previous celluloid takes on the Aldo Moro kidnapping, such as Giuseppe Ferrara's Il Caso Moro (1986), by focusing on the mentality of these self-made terrorists, on the playoff between their ideological certainties and their moral instincts. It is a powerful film, and Italian distributor 01 Films has staked its wad on it, opening on 5 September with 120 copies - a record for such a resolutely arthouse product.

On 16 March 1978, a commando of five Red Brigade gunmen attacked Aldo Moro's cortege in the centre of Rome, killed his five bodyguards, and bundled the old man into a waiting getaway car. Moro was taken to a suburban apartment in the capital and kept prisoner for almost two months before being executed. These events are branded into the consciousness of any Italian over the age of thirty, and have spawned numerous books, including Il Prigioniero, an account of Moro's ordeal written by one of his gaolers, Anna Laura Braghetti.

But Bellocchio is not interested in the bare facts. He is fascinated by two things: first, the way in which, at certain historical moments, ideology can short-circuit humanity. And second, the way in which the prisoner-gaoler relationship, especially in such unusual circumstances, can spawn a sort of mutual dependency.

His central character, and the film's surrogate narrator, is Chiara, the only woman among Moro's four gaolers. Maya Sansa plays Chiara with a quiet, dark-eyed passion that sometimes wells up into rage, tears, or just occasionally, a smile. She sleeps chastely next to a rotating shift of compagni in the stiflingly bourgeois apartment, puts on a wedding ring when she goes out to work or bring back the groceries, and reads books about partisans killed by Fascists in World War II to stoke her resolve. She is not one of the two Brigatisti who deal directly with Moro - and this affects how we see 'il presidente', as his gaolers continue to address him. Moro, played with just the right measure of tired dignity by Roberto Herlitzka, is held back from us, glimpsed obliquely through doors and partitions.

Bellocchio has his little foibles, as always. There is a weird seance scene in which a spirit called Bernardo directs investigators to look for Moro on the moon - surely a sideswipe at Bertolucci's film La Luna'. The soundtrack veers between over-the-top horror chords and more persuasive forays, most memorably a fast-montage sequence which is underscored by the The Great Gig in the Sky from Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon. Photography and production design conspire to stress the sense of claustrophobia both inside the apartment and out, where confined spaces like buses, library bookstacks and even a canary's cage play on the prison theme, on the sense of a nation waiting, oppressed and fearful. Given the subject matter, this film is likely to stir much greater interest on home ground. But you don't need a degree in contemporary Italian history to be swept along by it.

Prod co: Filmalbatross
Co prod: Rai Cinema, Sky
Int'l sales: Rai Trade (+39 06 372 3492; info@raitrade.it)
Prod: Marco Bellocchio, Sergio Pelone
Scr: Marco Bellocchio
Cinematography: Pasquale Mari
Prod des: Marco Dentici
Ed: Francesca Calvelli
Main cast: Maya Sansa, Luigi Lo Cascio, Pier Giorgio Bellocchio, Giovanni Calcagno, Paolo Briguglia, Roberto Herlitzka