Dir: Paolo Sorrentino. Italy. 2001. 100mins.

Paolo Sorrentino's first full-length feature, which screened in the Cinema del Presente competition at Venice, shows promise. Its tight budget is betrayed by the flat, TV-style camerawork and one or two amateurish moments; and it is quite a conventional work to come out of Naples, which has long been the experimental seedbed of Italian cinema. But One Man Up is saved by its good structure. Though Sorrentino's script could do with being more overtly cinematic (it would work almost as well on stage), it is at least strong and original - rare qualities on the contemporary Italian scene.

This is the first Italian production to be co-financed by distributor keyfilms - an operation set up by the late Kermit Smith, to whom the film is dedicated. In 2001, films such as Nanni Moretti's The Son's Room and Ferzan Ozpetek's Ignorant Fairies proved, for the first time in years, that Italian audiences are not allergic to serious, home-produced drama. While it is unlikely to perform as well as either of these, One Man Up should do respectable business on the Italian arthouse circuit. Overseas distribution appears a more remote prospect.

The film has two protagonists, whose two stories run parallel in alternating scenes, converging only towards the end. Both are called Antonio Pisapia - the Neapolitan equivalent of 'John Smith'. We first meet them in 1980, when both are on the crest of a wave. Tony Pisapia (Servillo), a pock-marked, chain-smoking, coke-sniffing singer of romantic ballads, is in the middle of a successful comeback tour. Fifteen years his junior, Antonio Pisapia (Renzi) is a defender in a serie A football team, who lifts his side into the top half of the league with a memorable scissor-kick goal. But a quarter of the way in, each suffers a career-freezing setback. The longer second part of the film - which has moved on four years - charts the two men's struggle to re-establish themselves and salvage a little self-respect.

Although the expected return to fortune never comes, One Man Up just about gets way with its bleak finale, which is alleviated only by the slightest of upturns in the closing minute of play. It gets away with it mainly because the two protagonists are so finely drawn - and finely portrayed by co-leads Servillo and Renzi - that the downbeat ending is made to seem the right one.

Prod cos: Indigo Film/keyfilms.
Dist (It): keyfilms.
Int'l sales: Mediatrade.
Prods: Nicola Giuliano, Kermit Smith, Francesca Cima, Angelo Curti.
Scr: Paolo Sorrentino.
Cinematography: Pasquale Mari.
Prod des: Lino Fiorito.
Ed: Giorgiò Franchini.
Music: Pasquale Catalano.
Main cast: Toni Servillo, Andrea Renzi, Nello Mascia, Ninni Bruschetta.