From the Waist On -- Film Review

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TAORMINA, Sicily -- The winner of the top jury prize at this year's Taormina Film Festival, this Italian gem, "Dalla Vita in Poi" (loosely translated as "From the Waist On"), mixes elements from "Cyrano de Bergerac" and prison movies such as "Escape from Alcatraz." The movie is one of those unexpected pleasures that festivals often promise but rarely deliver.

The only drawback for American distribution is that the charismatic stars, both of whom snagged acting awards at Taormina, are not well known outside Italy, which means the movie will have to depend on critical acclaim to draw audiences.

Katia (Cristiana Capotondi) is in a wheelchair as a result of muscular dystrophy, but she refuses to allow her disability to impede her physically or psychologically. Her friend, the shallow but good-hearted Rosalba (Nicoletta Romanoff), has on a whim entered into a correspondence with a convict, Danilo (Filippo Nigro). But her verbal skills are limited, so she enlists Katia to compose letters for her.

Danilo becomes intrigued by the eloquent letters, even though it takes him a while to recognize that they come from a new author. Before long, Rosalba has lost interest in her dangerous liaison, but Katia and Danilo become more passionately attached through their correspondence.

Writer-director Gianfrancesco Lazotti intercuts the first conjugal visit between Katia and Danilo with flashback scenes that delineate how their relationship evolved over the course of a year. This fractured narrative, which can seem gimmicky in many movies, has the advantage of moving swiftly past all unnecessary exposition.

In addition, Lazotti has a lot of neat narrative twists up his sleeve. Even more importantly, he finds hidden depths in all the characters. The impudent Katia is more richly delineated than typical handicapped characters in movies. While it's sometimes difficult to understand why women develop intense relationships with hardened convicts, Katia's options are limited, and she senses possibilities in Danilo that his prison cohorts never imagine.

Her belief in him turns out to be justified, since he undergoes a moral transformation that is initially surprising but ultimately believable and quite moving. Rosalba also finds an unlikely but appropriate match of her own.

Although the film was clearly made on a low budget, the crackerjack editing maximizes the humor and tension in the story. The chemistry between Capotondi and Nigro is palpable, and the alluring Capotondi makes an especially memorable heroine. In a way, "Waist" resembles a canny, incisive short story that builds to a profoundly satisfying conclusion.

Venue: Taormina Film Festival
Production: Rosa Film, Facciapiatta, Rai Cinema
Cast: Cristiana Capotondi, Filippo Nigro, Nicoletta Romanoff, Carlo Buccirosso
Director-screenwriter: Gianfrancesco Lazotti
Producer: Pierpaolo Paoluzi
Executive producer: Carmine Parmigiani
Director of photography: Alessandro Pesci
Production designer: Fabio Vitale
Music: Pietro Freddi
Costume designer: Alessandra Cannarozzi
Editors: Federico Aguzzi, Andrea Bonanni, Francesca Masini
No rating, 87 minutes
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