Dir: Dir. Salvatore Mereu. Italy/France/Belgium.2008. mins
Sonetaula, Sicilian director Salvatore Mereu's remarkable second feature, follows, in measured scenes of great formal beauty, a young Sardinian man's tragic arc from his adolescence in the late 1930s as a mountain shepherd to his life on the run as a bandit and fugitive.

It's an uncompromising film that refuses to meet its audience halfway - but one that repays patient viewers with a story so raw, harsh and direct that it doesn't seem mediated through script, camera or acting school. One of the many little miracles about Sonetaula - which could easily have played in competition rather than in its Panorama berth - is the intense performance of non-professional Francesco Falchetto in the title role.

Shot in Sardinian - which is different enough from Italian to be considered a separate language rather than a dialect - the film will need subtitling even on home ground, and this, together with the challenging running-time and the austere fatalism of style and story, will inevitably narrow audiences down. But critical plaudits, the online bush telegraph and positive word-of-mouth should nevertheless reward adventurous arthouse exhibitors, both in Italy and anywhere else where audiences receptive to world cinema like their films straight, with no ice.

The film opens on the impassive face of Zuanne (or Sonetaula, depending on who's talking to him) at the age of 13 as he listens to his parents making love. His father is off to work 'across the sea' - though we soon discover that he's been packed off to an Italian island prison after being framed for a murder. An only child, Zuanne is forced to look after his sickly mother Rosa (a sensitive performance from Giselda Volodi) and tend his father's flock of sheep.

In this he has the help of his elderly but sharp-as-a-knife grandfather Cicerone (Serafino Spiggia, another non-professional) and another relative, Giobatta, whose lungs are shot after his years as a coal miner (a part played, remarkably, by Pepeddu Cuccu, who way back in 1961 was the untrained star of Vittorio De Seta's seminal Sardinian outlaw film Banditi a Orgosolo).

The laconically-edited story, adapted from Giuseppe Fiori's novel, revolves around a feud with a rival shepherd which eventually pushes Zuanne to commit a point-of-no-return act of violence. An affecting romantic subplot revolves around fresh-faced cousin Maddalena (Chilean actress Manuela Martelli), who is attracted to Zuanne but unable to pierce the shell that the increasingly proud, resentful, solitary protagonist retreats into.

But as in the films of Terrence Malick or Bela Tarr, the story is often just background noise: we get the sense that Zuanne/Soanteula's feud, life on the run and eventual downfall are as much a part of the landscape as the waterfalls, caves and forests around Orgiadas. Progress comes in the form of war and electric lighting, foreshadowing the end of the primordial Sardinian lifestyle that Zuanne represents.

The lack of any music puts all the weight on the four cinematographers' tactile, grained photography, which homes in on faces - lit by moonlight, firelight or glaring sun.

Production companies
Lucky Red (It)
Haut et Court (Fr)
Artemis (Bel)

International sales
Celluloid Dreams

Gianluca Arcopinto
Andrea Occhipinti

Salvatore Mereau
Vittorio Omodei Zorini
Vladan Radovic
Ivan Casalgrandi,
based on the novel by Guiseppe Fiori,

Massimo Folletti

Production design
Marianna Sciveres

Paola Freddi

Main cast
Francesco Falchetto
Manuela Martelli
Antonio Crisponi
Serafino Spiggia
Peppeddu Cuccu
Lazar RistovskyGiselda Volodi