Dir: Costanza Quatriglio. Italy. 2003. 102mins.

A coming of age film set on Favignana, an island off western Sicily known for its tuna fishing traditions, The Island (L'Isola) is so relentlessly charming and so ravishingly shot that one can almost forgive a lack of dramatic backbone. Dealing with themes that arise from the unhealthy closeness of this isolated community and the ever-present sea - a source of income, a bridge to the outside world, but also a taker of lives - it is remarkable for the performances coaxed out of its young protagonists, all local children with no previous acting experience. Ten-year-old Veronica Guarrasi, in particular, is a radiant discovery, illuminating the film with her smile in a way that never seems forced. In its setting and in some of its themes, Quatriglio's film recalls another recent Italian island story, Emanuele Crialese's Respiro, also known in some territories as Grazia's Island. Here too, the local dialect is so thick that subtitles will probably be required for non-Sicilians; but this has not prevented The Island from reaching appreciative arthouse audiences in Italy's main cities, where it has taken Euros 49,874 after opening on nine screens five weeks ago. Abroad, its prospects are uncertain, though if the price is right one or two distributors may feel that its sun-soaked charm will woo cold northern audiences. It played during May in Directors Fortnight at Cannes.

The camera - sometimes handheld, sometimes fixed, and rarely very far from its protagonists - follows 10-year-old Teresa (Veronica Guarrasi) and her 14-year-old brother Turi in their island peregrinations. Teresa helps her grandma with her eyedrops and listens to her complain about the wall they have built in front of her house, blocking her view of the sea. Meanwhile the intense, curly-haired Turi is about to be inaugurated by his father into the mattanza, Favignana's spectacular May-June tuna cull, whose close-knit, male-dominated ritual aspects remind audiences of another, less picturesque Sicilian organisation.

Meanwhile, visual and narrative details cast sidelights on Turi's reluctant initiation by reminding that islands can also be prisons. Favignana is the site of a high-security prison, some of whose inmates - like the mechanic who repairs Teresa's bike - can work in the community, but who are handcuffed whenever they visit the mainland. The audience see the shadows that the bars of the boat shed throw on a stack of wooden crates; a dog tangled in a net and a calf penned in by boxes; and above all, in a dramatic scene that betrays Quatriglio's documentary background, the tuna thrashing around in the final death chamber of the fixed nets, which is called l'isola (the island), while the foaming water turns red.

But these premonitions of enclosure are lightly sketched in; what dominates the film is Teresa joyous animal energy and her brother's more tongue-tied, feral obstinacy - two strong bulwarks against the fatalistic surrender to "the way things are" that we observe in the older generation. Though its plots and subplots do not quite add up to a satisfying whole, L'Isola remains a strong debut.

It also demonstrates once again the good state of health of the Italian film music tradition: Paolo Fresu's spare, wistful, Spanish-tinged guitar and sax soundtrack takes the edge off the glare of the southern sun and reinforces the final message that there is more than one way forward for these young islanders.

Prod co: Dream Film
It dist:
Istituto Luce
Int'l sales:
Pasquino Distribuzione
Prod: Rean Mazzone, Elisa Resegotti
Costanza Quatriglio
Aldo di Marcantonio
Prod des:
Paola Peraro
Babak Karimi, Costanza Quatriglio
Paolo Fresu
Main cast:
Veronica Guarrasi, Ignazio Ernandes, Marcello Mazzarella, Erri De Luca