Dir: Edoardo Winspeare. Italy. 2003. 89mins.

Released on a limited Milan and Rome run the day after its Venice festival competition screening, Edoardo Winspeare's The Miracle racked up an impressive screen average then second only to The Hulk. This is the third film from the talented young southern Italian director, whose surname betrays his family's distant British origins. It's a more commercial prospect than his previous two features, Pizzicata and Life Blood (Sangue Vivo), both festival pleasers that under-performed at the box office. A story of a young boy who is convinced that he has miraculous faith-healing powers, The Miracle will be too sentimental for some. But the film's grounding in the harsh realities of life in the southern port city of Taranto, with its high unemployment, social decay and organised crime networks, gives it a hard centre that pulls it back from the brink of slush. Italian distributor 01 is has since seen it take $493,028 after four weeks. International prospects look less certain; this is not the sun-drenched south of Respiro or L'Isola.

Ostensibly, The Miracle is about the way miracles are manufactured, about how popular and media pressure can spin a trick of the light into a weeping madonna. But this is only one facet of the story - and it's a facet that was handled with more satirical verve by Fellini in the Virgin Mary subplot of La Dolce Vita. In reality, this is more a film about how painful growing up can be. The central character, Tonio, is a 12-year-old boy who is knocked off his bike by a hit-and-run driver. Coming round later in hospital, Tonio wanders into a room of a man whose ECG trace has gone flat, and revives him by placing a hand on his chest. Newcomer Claudio D'Agostino conveys the right balance of fragility and stubbornness as Tonino, though the first-timer who really steals show is chubby, wisecracking Rosario Sambito, who plays Tonio's friend Sarino.

The rumour that he has faith-healing powers does the rounds, and drives Tonio's already embattled parents further apart. Being Italian, his tired and emotional mother is quite prepared to believe that her son is a God; but his father is more sceptical, and resists the interview requests of a local TV journalist, until it occurs to him that his "miraculous" son might offer the solution to his financial problems. Meanwhile, Tonio has begun an odd friendship with Cinzia (Stefania Casciaro, another off-the-street find), the driver who knocked him down. Cinzia's bleak, aggressive outlook on life is only hardened when her absentee mother turns up, only to head off again with her lover after a few months.

Though dull, TV-style cinematography and banal dialogue mar some scenes, The Miracle grows in stature as the plot tensions are tightened, and even the visuals improve: we feel the light take on more of an evening glow towards the end, illuminating the weathered, pock-marked walls of the old town. The industrial sprawl that surrounds Taranto is an oppressive presence that underpins the film's journey from hope to disappointment and back again. One thing that is lacking is the sheer animal energy of Life Blood, a film that was driven by the trance-dance tarantella music of Winspeare's native Puglia. For all its dramatic flaws, that sophomore outing remains Winspeare's best. But The Miracle may well turn out to be more on the money.

Prod cos: Sidecar, Rai Cinema
Int'l sales:
Maurizio Tini
Giorgia Cecere, Pierpaolo Pirone
Paolo Carnera
Prod des:
Sabrina Balestra
Luca Benedetti
Cinzia Marzo, Donatella Pisanello
Main cast:
Claudio D'Agostino, Carlo Bruni, Anna Ferruzzo, Stefania Casciaro, Angelo Gammarro, Rosario Sambito, Luca Cirasola