Attacking the well-trod theme of the dysfunctional Italian family ("Don't Tell," "The Son's Room") from the p.o.v. of a traumatized 1l-year-old boy, "Along the Ridge" sidesteps melodrama by going for a basically realistic context. Pic marks a fest-worthy but sometimes scattershot directing debut by popular Italian thesp Kim Rossi Stuart who, supported by an excellent cast, also makes few concessions to stardom in his role as a violent father. May 5 release had a slow opening weekend on Italian soil; critical support will be needed from its Cannes screenings (in Directors Fortnight) to get the film moving abroad.
Local auds have picked up on a resemblance between Rossi Stuart's good-looking, bearded father, prone to singing in the car with his kids, and Nanni Moretti's various incarnations as a jovial parent. But pic's real model is Vittorio De Sica's 1944 classic, "The Children Are Watching Us."
Like actor-director De Sica, Rossi Stuart views an egotistical, insensitive adult world through the eyes of a lonely little boy. Tommi (Alessandro Morace, gravely sweet-faced) and his older sister, Viola (Marta Nobili), are victims of their parents' pain-wracked break-up, spurred, again, by the mother's infidelity.
As the curtain rises, Renato (Rossi Stuart) is ironing clothes and fixing breakfast for Tommi and Viola, following the departure of mom, Stefania (Barbora Bobulova), some time ago for greener pastures. The little family's precarious harmony is thrown for a loop when she suddenly resurfaces like a repentant ghost.
Tommi triangulates between school, where he has difficulty socializing with the other kids, competitive after-school swimming he hates, and the red-hot atmosphere of home. Even his secret hideaway on the apartment building's steep rooftops is charged with danger. Young Morace adds a rare grace to this vulnerable role that spirits the film through a number of narrative quagmires.
On one hand, the plot is breezily elliptical; on the other, several key motivational scenes seem to have been omitted. Missing, for instance, is a confrontation between the flighty, over-emotional Stefania and trigger-tempered Renato that would motivate her abandoning the family once again, after struggling so hard to regain their trust.
It's hard to decide who's more dislikable between the two parents. Having established Renato's uncontrollable temper, Rossi Stuart reiterates it with a willfulness that broaches on insanity, while alternating Jekyll/Hyde style as a deeply caring father. Slovakian-born Bobulova turns in such a fine performance as the messed-up mother that easy moralism slips away.
Smooth cinematography capturing glimpses of old Rome and the restful set design give the film a pleasingly clean look. But it's more harmonious than is called for by the story and lower-middle-class setting.
Original title, "Even Independent It's All Right," refers to soccer, a sport that offers the film the mildest of upbeat endings. Official English title is even more obscure, as the pic features no hills, mountains or ridges.
Camera (color), Stefano Falivene; editor, Marco Spoletini; music, Banda Osiris; production designer, Stefano Giambanco; costume designer, Sonu Mishra; sound (Dolby SRD), Mario Iaquone; associate producers, Giorgio Magiullo, Andrea Costantini. Reviewed at Fiamma, Rome, May 10, 2006. (In Cannes Film Festival -- Directors Fortnight.) Running time: 104 MIN.