Local 2001 hit "Santa Maradona" signaled novice helmer Marco Ponti as an energetic stylist, and, in his sophomore follow-up, "Roundtrip," he's expanded his visual vocabulary while maintaining a hipster's ear for quick dialogue and quirky humor. This tale about a couple of lost souls and how they find each other is really two films, and, although they never quite meld, clever helming and confident thesping should keep complaints to a minimum.

Local 2001 hit “Santa Maradona” signaled novice helmer Marco Ponti as an energetic stylist, and, in his sophomore follow-up, “Roundtrip,” he’s expanded his visual vocabulary while maintaining a hipster’s ear for quick dialogue and quirky humor. This tale about a couple of lost souls and how they find each other is really two films, and, although they never quite meld, clever helming and confident thesping should keep complaints to a minimum. Despite a lackluster title and unimaginative poster art, Ponti’s stylish pleaser should prove a winner at the B.O., easily making the trip to far-flung screens, with further mileage from ancillary.

Having proven his star quality as key support in “Santa Maradona,” Libero De Rienzo nimbly carries protag duties as Dante, a bike messenger in the north Italian city of Turin. Coasting on charm but lacking direction, Dante is searching for something fulfilling in his life, which his strong coterie of friends can’t provide. Chief among the latter is the resourceful, calming Tolstoj, played with screen-enveloping warmth by veteran international thesp Kabir Bedi.

Dante borrows a large sum from loan sharks, headed by Skorpio (Michele Di Mauro), with the idea of skipping town for Barcelona to reactivate his inner compass.

Meanwhile, Spanish flight attendant Nina (Vanessa Incontrada) is also stuck in a passionless rut. She lands in Turin just as a strike cripples the country, and she and her fellow hostesses are grounded for an indeterminate period only days before Christmas. The hotels are completely booked, but Tolstoj, bellboy at the Grand, takes pity and slips her into a suite while the occupants are away. When this proves unworkable, the gentlemanly Tolstoj offers Nina Dante’s now empty apartment.

Between occasional calls to her friend Celia (Esther Ortega), Nina floats through her days in Turin. While cleaning Dante’s place, she discovers photographs and his journals, and creates a fantasy bond between them.

Meanwhile in Barcelona, Dante is mistakenly jailed, then robbed by the cops. With no money left, he manages to make his way back to Turin, where he finds his apartment, and his bed, occupied by Nina. As Christmas approaches, they realize they may be the ones able to restart each other’s emotional motors. But the loan sharks must be repaid.

As the film shifts gears and ventures into caper territory, there’s more than a tip of the hat to the Monicelli classic “Big Deal on Madonna Street,” but Ponti’s search for inspiration carries him further than the Italian border, with key nods to Tarantino and Soderbergh, not to mention a final dedication to Kurt Cobain.

Ponti has peppered his film with a panoply of likeable smaller characters, and his vision of a multi-ethnic Turin is refreshingly unprovincial in scope and feel. While at times veering too far into the overly hip, and in one scene dangerously teetering on the edge of music video imitation, the film generates a winning energy that is sustained by a marvelously game cast.

In only her second feature, Incontrada’s statuesque presence remains firmly grounded in reality, with barely a whiff of the catwalk; she may be numb but she’s never frozen. De Rienzo’s easy-going appeal has a naughty air and he displays a fine sense of balance between comic affability and genuine emotion. Exuding charisma, Bedi makes the most of a small role: His voice is intoxicating in any language.

Color tonalities are carefully controlled through accomplished digital work, with sharp, cool blues predominating. Worth singling out for praise are Walter Fasano’s expert editing, which manages to smoothly play with split screens and wipes and yet not seem gimmicky, and Alessandro Lai’s wittily retro design for Nina’s flight attendant uniform. Well-utilized soundtrack, with its mixture of contempo rock, pop and hip-hop, has a good chance of making the charts.

Roundtrip

Italy

Production

A 01 Distribution release of a Rai Cinema/Harold & Motion/Mikado production. Produced by Roberto Buttafarro. Executive producer, Valter Buccino. Directed, written by Marco Ponti.

Crew

Camera (color, Cinemascope), Marcello Montarsi; editor, Walter Fasano; music, Motel Connection; production designer, Roberto De Angelis; costume designer, Alessandro Lai; sound (DTS, Dolby Digital), Benni Atria; associate producer, Ladis Zanini; assistant director, Fabio Tagliavia; casting, Shaila Rubin. Reviewed at Cinema Adriano, Rome, March 27, 2004. Running time: 106 MIN.

With

Dante - Libero De Rienzo Nina - Vanessa Incontrada Tolstoj - Kabir Bedi Dante's Father - Remo Girone Man in White - Ugo Conti Mohammed - Massimo De Santis Skorpio - Michele Di Mauro Stampella - Giuseppe Loconsole Smeg - Fabio Troiano Taxi Driver - Giovanni Carretta Pontone
With: Eugenio Allegri, Vanessa Compagnucci, Germana Pasquero, Maconda Dezardelle, Souad Reggadi, Hairi Vogel, Esther Ortega, Renzo Lori. (Italian, Spanish dialogue)

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