Dir: Salvatore Mereu. Italy. 2003. 106 mins.
Islands are becoming a real force in Italian cinema. Not just films set on islands, like Respiro or L'Isola, but films made by islanders. Aside from the offerings of temple elders Bertolucci and Bellocchio, the two most invigoratingly different Italian films to appear at last autumn's festivals were Cipri and Maresco's The Return of Cagliostro, from Sicily and Three Steps Dancing (though the Italian title, Ballo A Tre Passi, is better rendered as 'Three-step dance') by first-time Sardinian director Salvatore Mereu. The film, which won the FIPRESCI prize at Venice, can only springboard on its success during the following month, playing in competition at Rotterdam and the world cinema sidebar at Sundance.
Mereu's debut is a sort of Sardinian Short Cuts, a sequence of four interconnected cinematic short stories which are named - fairly arbitrarily, as it turns out - after the four seasons. Two things really impress about this new cinema eye: one is Mereu's technical grasp of point of view, framing and colour (achieved with the aid of no less than four cinematographers); the other is his assured direction of a mixture of professional and non-professional actors.
The stories themselves are quirky, original, at their best when they keep their feet firmly planted in the neo-realist tradition of Rossellini, De Sica and De Seta, or draw on the grittiness of early Truffaut, at their weakest when they descend into ethnological stereotype or into Fellini-esque whimsy.
A resolutely low-budget proposition, Three Steps Dancing built to a modest but by no means risible Euros 315,719 during its autumn 2003 Italian release, with more than half of that sum coming from Sardinian cinemas (mainlanders may have been put off by the extensive use of Sardinian dialect, which had to be subtitled). Overseas, an ultra-local film like this has, paradoxically, more chance of going global on the arthouse circuit than most of Italy's generic national cinematic offerings.
Although characters overlap in a minor way from one story to the next, there is none of the tricksy interweaving of destinies that is apparent, say, in Magnolia. Spring, the first of the four stories, is an utterly simple but charming tale about four boys from the Sardinian hinterland who get their first look at the sea.
Echoes of the same theme carry through into Summer, which revolves around an encounter between a shy, tongue-tied shepherd from the Barbagia hills and a sophisticated, independently-minded French girl on holiday in Sardinia.
In Autumn, a nun from a closed Trappist order gets leave of absence to attend her sister's wedding and is overcome by a kind of spiritual vertigo in the face of so much Real Life.
In the final story - the least effective of the four, and the most mannered - an old man in a nameless Sardinian city invites a hooker friend back to his apartment for a touch of impromptu accordion-playing, and has a surreal vision of his own death.
Mereu establishes his distinctive visual style in the very first shot, a captivating long sequence of a boy framed in a cellar door, advancing bravely but hesitantly in his search for the swimming trunks which he knows his parents have hidden somewhere in the room.
Subtle plays of light and reticent camera angles are the technical accomplices of Mereu's overriding theme, the clash between taciturnity and brash volubility, between Sardinia's archaic interior and its modern, international jet-set coast. There are ingenuities and unnecessary forcings - showing a shepherd unhappy with lovemaking until he has manoeuvered the woman into the doggy position is simply crass.
But overall the theme is explored with a refreshing lack of dogma - if in part two it's Michele the shepherd (nicely underplayed by a real Sardinian shepherd, Michele Carboni) who is thrown by the almost incomprehensible sight of people enjoying themselves on the beach, in part three it's the nun - who has all but lost the dialect of her hometown in the religious internationale of the convent - who finds village life too dangerously rich, complex and passion-stirring.
Traditional Sardinian music arranged by Giampaolo Mele Corriga underlines the action, breaking out into the foreground in the 'ballo a tre passi' of the title.
Production cos: Eyescreen, Lucky Red
International sales: Rai Trade
Italian dist: Lucky Red
Executive producer: Giancarlo Cianca
Producers: Gianluca Arcopinto, Andrea Occhipinti
Cinematography: Renato Berta, Tommaso Borgstrom, Renato Bravi, Nicolas Franick
Production design: Giada Calabria
Editor: Paola Freddi
Music: Giampaolo Mele Corriga
Main cast: Michele Carboni Caroline Ducey Yael Abecassis Giampaolo Loddo