Dir: Ferzan Ozpetek. Italy. 2005. 117 mins

Ferzan Ozpetek serves upa cringingly sentimental tale of managerial altruism for the multiplexgeneration: and yet another great white hope of Italian cinema falls by thewayside. The Turkish-born, Italian-trained Ozpetek is, alongside fellow Medusaregular Gabriele Muccino, the director who most ably occupies the middle-groundbetween commercial and arthouse in Italy. His previous outing, FacingWindows, was an uneven, over-plotted domestic drama with some moments ofreal emotional engagement; Cuore Sacro, however , sees the director'staste for uncanny Baroque coincidence and Big Sentiment pushed to gratingextremes. Even the Italian press, which generally rallies around its sacredcows, has broken ranks on this one, talking of a "confused andbadly-structured" film (La Stampa) which makes excessive use of "stockcharacters" (Il Messaggero).

Whether audiences will agreeis another question: distributor Medusa is confident enough to give Ozpetek hisbiggest ever roll-out on over 300 screens. One might imagine that SacredHeart will post low screen averages after the opening publicity-fuelledweekend, but the Italian box office works in mysterious ways, and the film'sreligious theme may well strike a chord with the same constituency that makesFamiglia Cristiana (a glossy, liberal Catholic weekly) the country'stop-selling magazine. Outside of Italy, TV sales are the most obvious source ofincome.

The story centres on asuccessful businesswoman, Irene Ravelli (Barbora Bobulova), who runs herfamily's property empire with the help of a hard-as-nails aunt. When herfamily's ancient palazzo reverts to her, Irene plans to spin a profit out ofit, as she does with everything and everyone else. But when she visits the gloomypile, the ghosts of the past begin to emerge: her dead mother's room is coveredin hieroglyphic scrawls that nobody can interpret (a narrative loose end, likemany in the film). Meeting an insufferable little purse-snatching urchinettecalled Benny (played by Camille Dugay Comencini, daughter of director FrancescaComencini), the sharp, ice-maiden career woman is for some inexplicable reasonmelted - particularly when she discovers that this underage Robin Hood has asideline feeding the poor. Cue Irene's conversion from ruthless business bitchto soup-kitchen saint.

Barbara Bobulova, anItalian-based Slovak actress whose roles in films like The Prince Of Homburgand Ovunque Sei have lifted her to top-of-the-poster status, seems to bestruggling to get into her character throughout the film.

Her task is not helped by ascript that keeps going off the boil, and that too often takes refuge in cliche(the tramp Irene holds in her arms at one point in a frankly offensiveevocation of Michelangelo's Pietà has to be one of the least believabledown-and -outs in recent cinema history), or lurches towards supernaturalexplanations when real ones prove too elusive. True, Sacred Heart seeksto control its lust for slushy sentiment by showing how altruism can itselfbecome an unhealthy, humourless obsession, but this home truth is imposedrather than earned.

Ozpetek began his career asassistant director and camera operator; and he and his DoP GianfilippoCorticelli have an instinctive feel for the widescreen format - though the fulllength of the screen is used less inventively here than it was in LaFinestra Di Fronte. Once again, as in that earlier film, the alleyways andpiazzas of Rome's centro storico are shown in all their crumbling grandeur,illuminated by raking, theatrical, warm yellow light. The score by experiencedItalian composer Andrea Guerra throws in a little Albinoni, a teaspoonful ofMichael Nyman, a pinch of jazzed-up opera; but in this context, its emotionalswells sound too much like empty rhetoric.

Prod co: Medusa Film
Int'll sales: tbc
Italian dist: Medusa
Prods: Tilde Corsi, Gianni Romoli
Scr: Gianni Romoli, Ferzan Ozpetek
DoP: Gianfilippo Corticelli
Prod des: Andrea Crisanti
Ed: Patrizio Marone
Music: Andrea Guerra
Main cast:: Barbora Bobulova, Andrea di Stefano, Lisa Gastoni,Massimo Poggio, Camille Dugay Comencini