Myra Paci's debut feature, "Searching for Paradise", from its central character who's on a quest for love after her father dies, to a visual design,which is a virtual conversation between film and dv, appears to be going places until it crash-lands. This can snare a distrib, but final playout will be limited to the narrow end of the specialty market.

Personally conceived and resistant to simplified formulas, Myra Paci’s debut feature, “Searching for Paradise” could have been vastly better than it actually is. From its pricklycentral character who’s on a quest for love after her father dies, to a visual design, inspired by Atom Egoyan’s early films, which is a virtual conversation between film and digital video, pic appears to be going places until it crash-lands into contradictions and underdeveloped ideas. If “Tadpole” (similar in some respects) can snare a distrib, then so can this, but final playout will be limited to the narrow end of the specialty market.

While Paci is personally and artistically indebted to the Italian masters of the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, “Paradise” more closely resembles American indie films filled with conversation scenes cut in bland, matching-cut style.

As New England high school grad Gilda (Susan May Pratt) obsesses on heartthrob thesp Michael De Santis (Chris Noth) — a New York actor who’s interviewed on TV by indie champion John Pierson — she hears him marvel at how the Italians would do away with plot in the interest of genuine human interaction.

Doting on ailing, thoroughly Florentine father Giorgio (Michele Placido) along with mother Barbara (Laila Robins), Gilda ponders what she wants to do with her life, using her new video camera as a means of reflection. As Giorgio’s life wanes and Gilda speaks to her camera, Paci’s film finds a nice, human rhythm, with the sense of people loving, fighting and moving on, while alternating between the cool, first-person video view and the warmer, third-person view caught on film.

But Gilda’s thing about actor Michael — and some unresolved female Oedipal issues toward her father — gets the better of her. After Giorgio dies, she goes through his papers and discovers a hidden letter from an Italian lover. Distraught, Gilda impulsively takes her grandmother Evelyn (Mary Louise Wilson) up on an offer to visit her and uncle Carl (Josef Sommer) in Gotham.

Incredibly, when Gilda gets to Manhattan, she starts snooping on Michael to the point where she becomes quite creepy — a creepiness, however, that Paci unfortunately depicts as more eccentric than disturbing. We even become concerned for nice, sweet geology student Adam (Jeremy Davies), whom sexually inexperienced Gilda encounters in Central Park, kisses and then later verbally assaults in a university library with the kind of derailed emotion suggesting serious mental illness.

Gilda emerges as such a strange, unexplained character that the movie becomes lost in a maze of its own making, and the promise of fulfilling human interaction in the Italian manner is lost. There is some real drama in Gilda’s ultimate encounter with Michael (she poses as a journalist from L’Espresso), but her shock that Michael would try to seduce her comes off as ineptly absurd.

Gilda is slightly mad, or hopelessly naive; in neither role is she intriguing, and her final conversion to normalcy back home with mom is profoundly unconvincing.

There’s a real problem when pic’s most unforgettable moment comes when Noth blows a smoke ring and then sucks it back in his mouth. It’s shameless upstaging of Pratt, who projects a loose, fresh attitude on screen but has an understandably difficult time finding her way around inside the impenetrable jungle that is Gilda.

Davies, as the guy who got away, continues to be the loosest, most relaxed American actor of his age group.

Sadly, as the film progresses, the initial film-video contrasts recede, replaced by flat, uninspired lensing, composition and cutting. Carter Burwell’s spare, intriguing score is more like the music he makes for himself, and a world away from his grand Hollywood work.

Searching for Paradise

Production

A Luxmundi Prods. presentation of a Charny/Grillo production in association with Centre Street and Grande Capo. Produced by Ruth Charny, Janet Grillo. Co-producer, Jonathan Shoemaker. Directed, written by Myra Paci.

Crew

Camera (Duart color), Teodoro Maniaci; editors, Beatrice Sisui, Robin Lee; music, Carter Burwell; production designer, Dina Goldman; costume designer, Sarah Holden; sound (Dolby), Dan Ferat; supervising sound editor, Doug Winningham; assistant director, Michael Lerman; casting, Karen Meisels. Reviewed at Los Angeles Film Festival, June 24, 2002. Running time: 85 MIN.

With

Gilda Mattei - Susan May Pratt Michael De Santis - Chris Noth Adam - Jeremy Davies Jim Johnson - John Pierson Giorgio Mattei - Michele Placido Barbara Mattei - Laila Robins Carl Greenslate - Josef Sommer Evelyn Greenslate - Mary Louise Wilson
Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more