Dir: Nanni Moretti. It-Fr. 2006. 112mins.

Part impassioned political expose, part maritaldrama, part meta-cinematic comedy, Nanni Moretti's new film TheCaiman is a curious hybrid that, in most other hands, would feel forced. It'sthe director's intuitive command of tonal shifts - from slapstick to serious,from Allen-esque one-liners to barbed Moore-ish satire - that pulls the disparate strands together inthe end. But with such a lot to distract us, it does not get under the skin inthe same way as Moretti's last feature, the straightbereavement drama The Son's Room(2001), nor the rambling diary pieces (Aprile, Caro Diario) that preceded it. It's one of those cases whereone comes out of the cinema admiring the director's bravura more than the filmitself.

The Caimanwill have three distinct lives. This weekend's Italian release, on anunprecedented (for Moretti) 380 copies, will be atriumphant progress fuelled by the controversy generated by the film'sfull-frontal attack on Italian prime minister SilvioBerlusconi, amid of one of the most acerbic election campaigns the country has known.

Its festival life - with aCannes competition slot taken for granted by most insiders - will be helpedalong by the French love of Moretti, but affectedalso by the fact that the April 9-10 Italian elections will be done and dustedby then. This factor will become even more prominent when the film hits territoriesbeyond home. If, as current opinion polls suggest, the elections go againstBerlusconi, then this post-Cannes phase will tend to spotlight the film'soverloaded thematic structure at the expense of its no-longer-urgent politicalagenda.

The film starts off in highcomic gear as failed film producer Bruno (Silvio Orlando, in an enjoyable performance that makes the most ofhis deliciously tragi-comic face) is presentedthrough some of the trashy B-movies he made years before - like the adventures ofan anti-Communist superwoman called Aidra, or thestrongman romp Maciste Versus Freud.

When Teresa (Jasmine Trinca, Best Of Youth),a first-time film director, hands Bruno a script called The Caiman, he decides to make it after skimming through the firstfew pages, seeing this political thriller as a way to keep the creditors at bayfor a few more weeks.

It's only when he and Teresaare on their way to a funding meeting with public broadcaster RAI that Brunorealises that the film's anti-hero is none other than Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Made reckless bydesperation, Bruno decides to go ahead and make the film anyway. Cue a seriesof dramatised insets from the script, in which Elio di Capitano plays the youngBerlusconi, outlining his plans for his Milano 2ideal suburb, or launching his three-channel challenge to the Italian state TVbroadcasting monopoly (Di Capitanonot only resembles Berlusconi but has his gestures off to a tee).

In the end, though, Moretti is not really interested in doing a satiricaltake-off of the Italian prime minister. Rather, his intense, angry politicalargument about a man who, in Teresa's words, "has managed to paralyse Italywith his personal issues for 12 years", is carried by using Berlusconi's exactwords, as documented in trial transcripts, parliamentary records and TV footage- some of which is included here.

Two other Berlusconis feature in addition to the DiCapitano version and the man himself. One is theCaiman played briefly by Marco (Michele Placido), thecrass and arrogant star who first accepts the role in Teresa's film, then getscold feet; the final one is Marco's substitute, Morettihimself.

The director's demonicaltake on the Italian media magnate turned prime minister - one of only two shortsequences in which Moretti actually appears - wrapsthe film on a jarring note of fanta-politicalmelodrama. This is perhaps the only point where Morettilets the controlled flame of his indignation start a bush fire.

In the background, both Bruno'sshaky marriage with Paola (Margherita Buy) and hisB-movie Aidra, are falling apart, and although the marital split is moreamicable than acrimonious, the problem remains of how to break it to the couples'sons of seven and nine.

Fractured families runthrough Moretti's oeuvre; here, what feels like apainfully personal story is conveyed with a mix of humour and drama - though itveers towards the latter in a couple of heavy scenes late on in this longishfilm that very nearly throw the script's thematic and tonal tightrope-walk offbalance.

The Caimanis far more complex than two previous Berlusconi-themed features, theanti-censorship documentary Viva Zapatero! and the recentGerman agit-prop satire Bye, Bye, Berlusconi. It's as though the director had set out toblend Michael Moore and Almodovar in a single film: afascinating experiment, and one that very nearly succeeds. But its veryrichness means that Moretti's latest takes a goodwhile to digest.

Production companies
Sacher Film
Bac Films
Stephan Films
France 3 Cinema

International sales
Wild Bunch
Andrea Barbagallo
Nanni Moretti

Nanni Moretti
Francesco Piccolo
Federica Pontremoli

Arnaldo Catinari

Production design
Giancarlo Basili

Esmeralda Calabria

Franco Piersanti

Main cast
Silvio Orlando
Margherita Buy
Jasmine Trinca
Daniele Rampello
Giacomo Passarelli
Michele Placido
Elio Di Capitano
Nanni Moretti