Dir: Cristina Comencini. Italy-UK 2002. 102 mins.

Like all of Cristina Comencini's films, The Best Day Of My Life is about relationships: family relationships, sexual relationships and the troubled relationship between the two. A large ensemble piece, it features some of the strongest acting talents on the Italian scene, from veteran Virna Lisi to last year's Coppa Volpi prizewinners, Sandra Ceccarelli and Luigi Lo Cascio. And although Comencini's other job as a novelist leads her to overwrite occasionally, here she uses her cast well in a story that has elements of high-class soap, but which in the end is both funny and moving. It takes a little patience to get to this point, however, and while audiences in Italy - where the film opens on Friday - will probably make the investment, those overseas who are familiar with neither Comencini nor most of the actors may lose interest before the drama has built to a critical mass.

Comencini is a figlia d'arte - a daughter born into the trade. She began by writing scripts for her father Luigi, who launched the commedia all'italiana genre with Bread, Love And Jealousy (Pane, Amore E Fantasia). In her own solo directing career, Cristina has continued to mine the vein of bittersweet comedy which Comencini senior specialised in, although with more of the bitter and less of the sweet.

In a large, semi-rural house that owes something to the big house of Go Where The Heart Takes You (Comencini's 1995 adaptation of the Susanna Tamaro novel), troubled matriarch Irene (Virna Lisi) frets about her roses and her three wayward children. The eldest, Sara (a familiarly neurotic Margherita Buy), is left alone after the death of her husband. She fills the gap by obsessing about her adolescent son - worrying that he might have had an accident, that he might be on drugs, or worse still, that he might be gay - like his uncle Claudio, her younger brother. Somehow, Claudio has never managed to tell his mother about his sexual orientation, and even though he is now a successful lawyer, the need for secrecy puts a strain on his relationship with his boyfriend. The middle child, Rita (Sandra Ceccarelli), is apparently the most settled; but her passion for vet Davide (an overdubbed Jean-Hugues Anglade) acts as a line of fracture, splitting her apart from her husband Carlo (Marco Baliani).

Comencini is becoming, for better and for worse, one of the most French of Italian directors. Her tight focus on the emotional tangles of a small group of people and the complex, literary plot webs she weaves, are more characteristic of a certain Gallic tradition than runs from Eric Rohmer to Agnes Jaoui than anything Italy has to offer. The Satie-like score of The Best Day Of My Life does nothing to cancel this impression.

One of the strengths of the film is the layering of points of view over three generations, from the oldest (represented by a formidable Lisi as the grandmother who comes to wonder whether all those years of self-sacrifice were really worth it), through her own children to their children: adolescent cousins Marco and Silvia, and Silvia's eight-year-old sister Chiara.
If I manage not to spill a drop, they'll stay together
says Chiara of her rowing parents as she brings a full glass of orange juice safely to the table. But they don't, and the last scene - referred to ironically in the title of the film - is shot by Chiara herself with the video camera she has just been given as a first communion present, as what is supposed to be a happy family gathering approaches meltdown. But Comencini is a conventional director - sometimes too conventional for her own good - and this is no Festen.

Prod cos: Cattleya
It dist: 01 Distribution
Int'l sales: Cattleya
Prod: Riccardo Tozzi, Giovanni Stabilini, Marco Chimenz
Scr: Cristina Comencini, Lucilla Schiaffino, Giulia Calenda
Cinematography: Fabio Cianchetti
Prod des: Paola Comencini
Ed: Cecilia Zanuso
Music: Franco Piersanti
Main cast: Virna Lisi, Margherita Buy, Sandra Ceccarelli, Luigi Lo
Cascio, Marco Baliani, Marco Quaglia, Jean-Hugues Anglade, Ricky Tognazzi