ROME -- Five years after his award-winning debut feature "Three-Step Waltz," Salvatore Mereu returns to his native Sardinia with the poetically gripping "Sonetaula." Utterly uncompromising in its months-long chronological shoot, use of the Sardinian dialect (recognized as a separate language in Italy), non-professional actors and unexpected shifts in time, the film is further proof that Mereu is one of Italy's most intelligent and dignified heirs to the country's best tradition of neorealism. While "Sonetaula" will find acclaim on the festival and awards circuit and perhaps in arthouse circles outside Italy as well.

Mereu adapted the eponymous novel by Giuseppe Fiori to expertly bring to life a story and characters when rural life disappeared virtually overnight in much of Europe. Four different cinematographers worked on the film's tones, which are often stark and blue, as Mereu strips away any facade of the sun-drenched paradise the island seems to tourists and outsiders.

The film opens in 1938, as naive 12-year-old Zuanne (Francesco Falchetto), who goes by the nickname Sonetaula, sees off his father (Lazar Ristovski in a wonderfully gentle cameo) to a "factory job" on the mainland, only to find out that he is actually being imprisoned for a murder he did not commit. He must leave his village to live in even greater poverty tending to his father's sheep with his grandfather (Serafino Spiggia) and uncle (Giuseppe Cuccu).

Falchetto is a find that should make even Ken Loach envious -- a teenager able to play 12 and 25 with equal depth, as the film ends in the early 1950s with the arrival of electricity in the village. Rarely off-camera, Mereu guides him through a performance that conveys to perfection a raw child on the verge of hard-bitten manhood and his eyes radiate both the tenderness and ferocity that accompany his transformation.

The only thing that evokes a smile from Sonetaula is Maddalena (Chilean actress Manuela Martelli), whom he has loved since childhood. She is attracted to him as well, but he is unable to express to her, or himself, his dreams of a luminous future together. When Sonetaula commits a vicious act of violence after one of his sheep is stolen, and thus becomes a fugitive, he seems fueled more by the frustration over not being with Maddalena than by vengeance.

The film stumbles towards the end, and there are small bones to pick -- such as why exactly Sonetaula becomes a bandit and a confusing subplot/chase scene from the boy's later criminal life. More alleviating moments or a score could have made the harshness less unrelenting, so that not all the roads in this Greek tragedy lead inevitably to the finale. For while "sonetaula" literally means "the sound of wood," Zuanne is also the name of a legendary bandit of Sardinian lore.

Lucky Red, RAI Fiction, Viacolvento
International sales: Celluloid Dreams
Director: Salvatore Mereu
Writer: Mereu
Producers: Mereu, Elisabetta Soddu
Directors of photography: Vladan Radovic, Vittorio Omodei Zorini, Massimo Foletti, Ivan Casalgrandi
Music: Enzo Favata and Concordu-Castelsardo Chorus
Costume designer: Loredana Buscemi
Editor: Paola Freddi.
Sonetaula: Francesco Falchetti
Maddalena: Manuela Martelli
Giuseppino Bande: Antonio Crisponi
Sebastiano Malune: Serafino Spiggia
Giobatta Irde: Giuseppe Cuccu
Egidio Malune: Lazar Ristovski
Rosa Tanchis: Griselda Volodi
Running time -- 152 minutes
No MPAA rating