Dir: Luca Guadagnino. It-Sp. 2005. 102mins.

"Loosely based on" ascandalous bestselling book which purports to recount the true sexualexperiences of a 16-year-old Sicilian schoolgirl, Sony Pictures Entertainment'sfirst Italian production Melissa Pstruggles gamely to be less of an adolescent sexploitation flick and more of acoming-of-age study.

True,there is some teen sex that will help to boost box office - especially at thelower end of the audience's 14-plus age range, and among those older audienceswho find the thought of underage flesh exciting.

But in the hands of Luca Guadagnino - a maverick experimental director who attractedattention in 1999 with his quasi- documentary noir The Protagonists, starring Tilda Swinton - the film turns into an oddly schizophrenic beast,with one foot in banal TV dialogue and characterisation and one in the Bressonian camp of fragmented, elliptical narrative andframing.

Thefinal result won't fully satisfy either hardcore cineastes or those looking forsoft porn in a pretty package - but the magic wand of art will help to broadenthe film's commercial base beyond the cheap-thrill camp.

Opening in Italy a week before the new HarryPotter, Melissa P easily nabbedthe top spot in front of March Of The Penguins with a feisty average of Euros 6,231 perscreen.

Boxoffice is also likely to be favourable in fellow co-production territory Spain,which like Italy may be Catholic but is more accepting of teen sex presented insuch a way.

Innorthern Europe and North America, on the other hand, audiences and censors mayfind the moralistic approach to pubescent erotic titillation more than a littlehypocritical.

Thebook on which the film is based, 100Strokes Of The Brush Before Bed, became the Italian publishing phenomenonof 2003, selling around 900,000 copies, and coming out in translation aroundthe world.

Writtenby a certain 'Melissa P', later revealed to be a Sicilian schoolgirl calledMelissa Panarello, it takes the form of an eroticdiary, supposedly kept by Melissa between the ages of 15 and 17, and dealingalmost exclusively with her multifarious and often brutal sexual experiences.

Thebook provides very little by way of psychological explanation for this youngschoolgirl's willing self-degradation, and it is this which the film fills in.

Here Melissa P gets an absentee father, a distracted, careerist mother (Fabrizia Sacchi) whose affectionfor her daughter is always mixed with criticism or reproof, and a rebelliousbest-friend grandmother (the always watchable GeraldineChaplin) who likes nothing better than to play the Pet Shop Boys at full volumeon her ghetto-blaster.

YoungSpanish actress Maria Valverde (dubbed in the Italianversion by the daughter of producer Claudio Amendola)has real screen presence, her Renaissance Virgin face emanating a puffyinnocence that makes her descent into the sex basement all the more shocking - thoughthis also feels exploitative, as Valverde's Melissaoften looks and acts more 13 than 16.

Guadagnino and his cinematographer Mario Amura film the sex scenes elliptically, focussing onMaria's face, bringing out the contrast between the masturbatorydiary-generated fantasies she gets off on and the loveless sex itself, when sheseems to go into a robotic trance. Unnatural lighting, with interiors bathed inyellows and oranges, plays up the unhealthy, airless nature of Melissaself-chastisement.

Butone of the many problems is that there is something so shallow and mediatic about the contemporary teen world Melissa inhabits(signalled by the SMS messages that appear in a corner of the screen) that itis difficult to take its darker shades seriously.

Whenbest friend Manu (Letizia Ciampa)exhorts Melissa with embarrassing Italo youth jargonlike "sei una figa spaziale" (you're anabsolute knockout) it rather undermines the attempts to create a deepersymbolic structure - for example, by turning school lotharioDaniele into a diabolic sadist rather than a spoiledrich kid, or by hinting at arcane sacrificial rites in a scene where Melissahas sex with five men.

Guadagnino is an interesting director, and there aretimes when he rises above the commercial imperatives of what was always goingto be, in the end, a succes de scandale.But by the sentimental, cloying moralistic finale - when Melissa gets a puppy,makes up with mum and throws her teen whore costume in the bin - he seems tohave thrown in an increasingly grubby towel.

Bess Movie
Pentagrama Films

Sony Pictures Entertainment

Peter Shepherd
Roberto Manni

Francesca Neri
Claudio Amendola
Iona De Macedo

Jose Ibanez

Luca Guadagnino
Barbara Alberti
Cristina Farina
from the book by
Melissa Panarello

Mario Amura

Ettore Guerrieri

Walter Fasano

Diego Navarro

Maria Valverde
Geraldine Chaplin
Fabrizia Sacchi
Primo Reggiani
Letizia Ciampa