Dir: Nina di Majo. Italy. 2002. 100 mins.

A great performance by Valeria Bruni Tedeschi is not enough to save this self-indulgent ensemble piece by young Neapolitan director Nina di Majo. It's a sad truth that most films are lost or saved in the first few minutes, and the opening of Winter is a fairly representative sample of what is to come: flat, TV-style camerawork, mannered acting, stilted dialogue with metaphysical ambitions. After its Berlin festival showing - in the Panorama section - the film will probably settle down to a limited arthouse run at home in Italy. The presence of Bruni Tedeschi - who has made a name for herself on both sides of the Alps - may hook the film a French distributor.

Two couples live a loft existence with loft emotions in the suburbs of an anonymous Italian city that only the most perceptive viewers will recognise as Rome. Leo (Gifuni) is a writer with a capital W - in other words, he strikes a lot of good poses and generally fails to get published. His partner, the complex-racked Marta (Bruni Tedeschi), is using part of her family's accumulated wealth to set up an art gallery. They have a fairly solid relationship - as long as they don't talk to each other too much. But a spanner in the works comes in the form of Anna (Golino), the prettily submissive wife of a womanising industrialist. Leo is led into temptation, and even though Marta offers him a way back to affection, he is too inarticulate - or too obsessed with himself - to take it. So their relationship unravels; and with it, the film.

Once over the bad cold that she appears to have at the beginning of the film, Tedeschi holds the audience's attention with a performance that starts off looking improvised but gradually grows in authority. With her high-pitched voice and permanently embarrassed expression, she is an unlikely magnet for our attention, but somehow manages to be at least as mesmerising as her half-sister Carla Bruni ever was on the catwalk. Gifuni tries and fails to hold up his end of their scenes together; his expressive range stretches only from the scowl to the smirk to the sulk. Technical tricks - jumpy editing, scenes where the dialogue slips in and out of lip synch, echo cuts - look like the stock-in-trade of a student rock video director.

There are moments of humour, some of it unintentional (Leo's line 'my books are piles of shit' raised a cheer at an Italian preview). But mostly the dialogue is over-stylised and over-pretentious. With the exception of Marta, we fail to connect with any of these over-wrought, artificial characters. The film remains a neat demonstration of the Bogartian maxim that the problems of two little people don't add up to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Unless, that is, you have great actors and a great script.

Prod cos: Rai Cinema, Dodici Dicembre
Int'l sales:
Rai Trade
Giorgio Magliulo
Nina di Majo
Cesare Accetta
Prod des:
Gianni Silvestri
Giogio Fanchini
Leandro Sorrentini, Davide Mastropaoli
Main cast:
Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Valeria Golino, Fabrizio Gifuni, Yorgo Voyagis