Sul Mare -- Film Review

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A comedy-drama about young love and small-town life, Alessandro D'Alatri's "Sul Mare" ("On the Sea") is as warm and gentle as its island setting, until a jarring last 20 minutes that are both soft and tragic. Yet it offers incomparably more than the depthless teen romances topping the Italian boxoffice in recent years.

The appealing leads, well-written script and technical values that don't belie the film's no-budget roots will please general audiences. Internationally, it could satisfy those who still look to Italy for endearing tales of everyday life despite the youth-oriented story.

"Sul Mare" was adapted by the director and Anna Pavignano from a novel by the latter. Pavignano is best known as the screenwriter of all of actor-director Massimo Troisi's films; they received an Oscar nomination for their "Il Postino" script in 1994.

During peak season, handsome 19-year-old Salvatore (Dario Catiglio in a great screen debut) takes tourists around his island of Ventotene on his little boat and enjoys the easy life. A string of good-looking girls, a mother who takes care of him and endless sunshine are all he wants. Off-season, he works on the mainland like most of the island's men, working dangerous construction jobs and getting paid under the table. He says he's like a mattress, "with a summer side and a winter side."

Then Salvatore meets determined but troubled Martina (Martina Codecasa, also a newcomer, also good), who's come to Ventotene for scuba diving. They spend one romantic night together and the self-professed Don Giovanni falls in love -- and then lovesick when she returns to Genoa and won't answer his calls. He can't get out of bed, won't eat and even "forgets" how to walk. His emotional state is so debilitated that his parents send him to a psychologist, but he's too proud to tell anyone the real reason for his suffering.

His misery ends when Martina returns to be with him, even though she admits she has a boyfriend back home. They spend a couple of intense weeks together and for the first time Salvatore starts imagining a better future than the one awaiting everyone he knows.

Most films about summer love focus on the tourist passing through so it's refreshing to see a sensitive story about the one who's left behind. Italy is as famous for its vacation spots as it is for stereotypes of attractive men, and "Sul Mare" smartly puts a face to one of them (in this case, one of the many working poor). Salvatore may be the golden boy of his village, but his good looks and natural charm only make the fact that he has few options in life more heartbreaking.

When the story focuses on Salvatore's relationships -- with Martina, his parents and friends, a Senegalese construction worker -- it paints a sincere portrait of dead-end, small-town life. But a tragic finale, though beautifully shot, tries to drive home a political message that actually detracts from the greater social critique that the film's storyline achieves so effortlessly.

Opens: April 2 (Italy)

Production companies: Buddy Gang, Warner Bros. Entertainment Italia
Cast: Dario Catiglio, Martina Codecasa, Nunzia Schiano, Vincenzo Merolla, Raffaele Vassalo, Kevin Nosta Mao, Salvio Semioli, Anna Ferzetti
Director: Alessandro D'Alatri
Screenwriters: Anna Pavignano, D'Alatri
Producers: Alessio Gramazio, Paolo Calabresi Marconi
Director of photography: Alessio Gelsini Torresi
Production designer: Monica Vittucci
Music: Freaks
Costume designer: Gemma Mascagni
Editor: Osvaldo Bargero
No rating, 105 minutes
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