La Stanza Del Figlio

Dir: Nanni Moretti. Italy/France. 2001. 98mins

If Nanni Moretti is the Italian Woody Allen, then La Stanza Del Figlio is his Interiors. The Moretti faithful expect at least three or four memorable gags per film, but although it has a few moments of comic relief, La Stanza Del Figlio (literally The Son's Room) has not a single rewindable gag. But that's hardly surprising, as this is a film about the death of a son. Although several years in the making - partly because Moretti's most recent diary-film, Aprile (1998), jumped the queue, but also because of the director's legendary perfectionism - La Stanza Del Figlio proves to be worth the wait. Finely cast and finely acted, it is an important step forward for Moretti after the static self-parody of Aprile. A strong festival showing at Cannes - where the film must be a competition shoo-in - would give the film the leg-up it needs in the overseas market.

In the movies, important deaths, as opposed to disposable ones, are supposed to take place either at the beginning or the end. This one kicks in after 30 minutes. The result is that the film falls into two unequal, but not uneven, halves.

The first is taken up by a surprisingly unironic portrait of the perfect Morettian family. Father is a sardonic, mildly obsessive jogging psychoanalyst; mother, who's in publishing, is pretty, sensitive and intelligent. The teenage son and daughter seem, incredibly, to like their parents; even more bizarrely, they like each other.

The lack of irony in this long prologue is, one assumes, deliberate, as one of the overriding themes of La Stanza Del Figlio is the way successful, articulate Western families are pathetically unprepared for death. One of the first things to be destroyed in the long, moving, grief-laden second part of the film is the protagonist's intellectual smugness - the very quality that has, in the past, marred Moretti's self-centred comedies. As a result, La Stanza Del Figlio could be a commercial as well as an artistic watershed for the director, opening up new audiences not only in the co-production territories of Italy and France (where he has a large fan base), but also further afield.

Those who read Caro Diario as an intelligent, witty Italian holiday brochure will no doubt be frightened off. Though Giuseppe Lanci's photography is as limpid as ever, the look of the film is deliberately flat. The port city of Ancona is used as a backdrop precisely because there is nothing special about it: this is small-town Italy, with tennis courts, neat municipal parks and basketball arenas. The interiors, with their potted palms and well-fed bookcases, are equally unresponsive.

La Stanza Del Figlio is a film that demands some effort on the part of its audience; rarely have funeral arrangements been shown on celluloid in such harrowing detail. The reward - at least after the death - is a sustained wave of painful, cathartic emotion that one does not associate with Moretti's work. In the director's more playful past, a psychoanalyst's couch would have generated some classic one-liners. Here, though, the analyst's sessions with his five patients are only occasionally droll. More often they are uncomfortable; almost always they add something to our understanding of the character.

Prod cos: Sacher Film, Bac Films, StudioCanal. Int'l sales: StudioCanal. Prods: Angelo Barbagallo, Nanni Moretti. Scr: Linda Ferri, Moretti, Heidrun Schleef. Cinematography: Giuseppe Lanci. Prod des: Giancarlo Basili. Ed: Esmeralda Calabria. Music: Nicola Piovani. Main cast: Moretti, Laura Morante, Jasmine Trinca, Giuseppe Sanfelice, Silvio Orlando, Claudia della Seta, Stefano Accorsi