A surgeon recalls the crucial moments of his life as his own teenage daughter lies on the operating table, hovering between life and death, in the tense Italian drama "Don't Move." Sergio Castellitto takes the viewer on an emotion-filled ride, however, it is Penelope Cruz who gives the film's knockout performance.

A surgeon recalls the crucial moments of his life as his own teenage daughter lies on the operating table, hovering between life and death, in the tense Italian drama “Don’t Move.” In his second outing as a director, top thesp Sergio Castellitto (also playing the surgeon) takes the viewer on an emotion-filled ride and brings a violently masculine perspective to the story. However, it is Penelope Cruz who gives the film’s knockout performance. Wide release in Italy March 12, on 200 prints, should bring Medusa sound returns on a film which is eminently playable offshore.

Cruz’s perf, as an ordinary, rather ugly Albanian girl who becomes the passion of the surgeon’s life, is bound to evoke comparisons with Charlize Theron’s recent, glammed-down stint in “Monster.” And certainly, the Spanish actress is set to surprise and touch viewers in this unexpected and very touching role.

There has been a motorbike accident, and the ER doctor (Angela Finocchiaro) is horrified to recognize the victim as the daughter of her fellow surgeon, Timoteo (Castellitto). He waits, sweating and trembling, outside the operating room as brain surgery is performed on the girl in a desperate attempt to save her life. A more melodramatic opener is hard to imagine, yet the speed with which everything happens and succinct imagery — the minimal needed to set the scene — thrusts auds into the story before they know what hit them.

While he waits for the outcome, and for his wife, Elsa (Claudia Gerini), to fly back from England, Timoteo stares out the window at a mysterious woman sitting in the pouring rain. This ghost from the past provokes a long series of flashbacks taking viewers through Timoteo’s life: A brief sepia-toned childhood scene shows Timoteo’s fragile emotional base as his father storms out of the house forever. There is his beautiful middle-class wife, her parents, their friends. But the memory that haunts him belongs to a hot summer afternoon, when he met Italia (Cruz).

In a trashy mini-skirt and overblown makeup, her face disfigured by a darkened tooth and hollowed-out eyes, Italia is hardly anyone’s dream woman. She lives alone in a soon-to-be razed little cottage in the middle of a bland, unfinished housing project. Her colorful cottage suggests her specialness and is the first of many well-used symbols in the film.

Their first contact is, quite simply, rape, as Timoteo forces himself on her in a sudden onslaught of desire. But he keeps coming back, day after day, unable to quench the flame, which turns into passionate love for both of them. His wife, sensing something amiss, waits uneasily.

Having gone this far, Castellitto the director is not about to back down into a tame marital drama. On the contrary, he constantly raises the story’s emotional pitch with pregnancies, abortion, childbirth and finally death, in a spiral of anguishing choices that his hero never makes. The weak link on the chain, of course, is Italia, and she bears the brunt of the suffering like a saint.

Screenplay is based on the prize-winning novel by Castellitto’s wife, Margaret Mazzantini, here co-scripting with her husband. The two things that keep the film from falling into laughable melodrama are its continual inventions on a stylistic level — tips of the hat to d.p. Gianfilippo Corticelli and editor Patrizio Marone — and the exceptional level of acting. Although Castellitto is riveting in his portrait of a lover torn between his home and passions, he allows himself too much license in later scenes when he often blows his professional cool.

Cruz, in comparison, saves her scene-stealing outbursts for climactic moments. Like the Sicilian protag of her first Italian film (Aurelio Grimaldi’s “The Rebel”), her wide-eyed intensity and seriousness allow her to easily pass as a southern Italian of Albanian origin. Gerini and Finocchiaro turn out career performances in supporting roles.

Don't Move

Italy

Production

A Medusa release of a Cattleya, Medusa production, in association with Alquimia Cinema and the Producers Films. (International sales: Capitol Films, London.) Produced by Riccardo Tozzi, Giovanni Stabilini, Marco Chimenz. Co-producers, Francisco Ramos, Jeanna Polley. Directed by Sergio Castellitto. Screenplay, Castellitto, Margaret Mazzantini, based on Mazzantini's novel.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Gianfilippo Corticelli; editor, Patrizio Marone; music, Lucio Godoy; production designer, Francesco Frigeri; costume designer, Zaira De Vincentiis; sound (Dolby Digital), Mario Iaquone; associate producer, Giovannella Zannoni. Reviewed at Barberini Cinema, Rome, March 12, 2004. Running time: 119 MIN.

With

Sergio Castellitto, Penelope Cruz, Claudia Gerini, Angela Finocchiaro, Marco Giallini, Pietro De Silva, Elena Perino.
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