"Mediterraneo" helmer Gabriele Salvatores follows his kidnapped-child drama "I'm Not Scared" with a less fetching film noir that leans toward psychological drama at the expense of mystery. Story about a ballsy female private eye feels too artificially plotted to ring many bells for genre fans, and pic's dark interiors and emphasis on videotape viewing make for a more cerebral, less exciting export item than the sumptuous "Scared," which rang international cash registers to the tune of $7.6 million. Stylish hipness may work better onshore, where distrib Medusa opened wide May 27 on 250 prints.

“Mediterraneo” helmer Gabriele Salvatores follows his kidnapped-child drama “I’m Not Scared” with a less fetching film noir that leans toward psychological drama at the expense of mystery. Story about a ballsy female private eye feels too artificially plotted to ring many bells for genre fans, and pic’s dark interiors and emphasis on videotape viewing make for a more cerebral, less exciting export item than the sumptuous “Scared,” which rang international cash registers to the tune of $7.6 million. Stylish hipness may work better onshore, where distrib Medusa opened wide May 27 on 250 prints.

Though minus box-office stars, film does strike gold with the offbeat casting of rock singer Angela Baraldi as P.I. Giorgia Cantini. Her lived-in, 40-year-old face brings a warm, scrappy realism to a character that would otherwise be completely unbelievable. As hard-drinking and emotionally armored as Philip Marlowe but with a hidden femininity, she works in her father’s agency with chirpy young sidekick Lucio (Elio Germano).

Their work seems to consist of taking pictures of adulterers with giant telephoto lenses. However, one betrayed spouse overreacts dramatically to proof of his wife’s infidelity, showing Giorgia and Lucio’s profession is no ordinary one.

This dark side catches up with Giorgia, too, when she’s sent a box of old videotapes that form a kind of diary by her sister, Ada (Claudia Zanella). Watching them, Giorgia is stirred to launch a personal investigation into Ada’s death 16 years earlier, believed at the time to be suicide.

The tapes (which take up sizable parts of the film) show a happy, extroverted girl struggling to start an acting career while she juggles a live-in boyfriend with a secret affair. Her death seems completely unmotivated.

As a mystery waiting to be unraveled, the noir elements are promising, and the characters well-positioned to sort them out. But the twists and turns of the story, based on a novel by Grazia Verasani, feel arbitrary, as though helmer Salvatores isn’t passionately interested in them. Certainly, they take a back seat to Giorgia’s descent into the black hole of her family’s past: As in much of Salvatores’ work, the main focus is on exploring character, how and why people change over time, and the effects of the generational Zeitgeist.

Ada’s naughty liveliness on the tapes captures something of the spirit of the ’80s sex-and-drugs scene, while Giorgia, all brooding sharpness, sassily reps a single woman of her generation. Though Giorgia is often short-tempered and explosive — she boxes as a way to let off steam — her down-to-earth qualities prove irresistible to police commissioner Bruni (Andrea Renzi) and to sexy professor Andrea (Gigio Alberti, from “My Mother’s Smile”). The witty verbal exchanges between Georgia and Andrea, much more than their embarrassed-looking bedroom scenes, offer some sparkling moments.

Appallingly overdone, though, are the film’s forced references to other movies: Salvatores seems compelled to pay homage to every film classic that’s ever struck him. This extends even to pic’s title: Marlon Brando’s line to Maria Schneider in “Last Tango in Paris,” which plays a crucial but way too referential part in Giorgia solving Ada’s death.

Cinematographer Italo Petriccione creates a velvety, up-close-and-dangerous feeling with his HD night photography of Bologna’s porticos and colonnades that spills over into the off-center lensing of interiors. Songs are carefully selected, mixing post-punk and classics, while Ezio Bosso’s incidental music makes sharp use of Philip Glass’ instrumentalists.

Quo Vadis, Baby?

Italy

Production

A Medusa release of a Colorado Film Production. Produced by Maurizio Totti. Directed by Gabriele Salvatores. Screenplay, Fabio Scamoni, Salvatores, based on the novel by Grazia Verasani.

Crew

Camera (color, HD-to-35mm), Italo Petriccione; editor, Claudio Di Mauro; music, Ezio Bosso; production designer, Rita Rabassini; costume designer, Patrizia Chericoni, Florence Emir; sound (Dolby Digital), Mauro Lazzaro; assistant director, Davide Bertoni. Running time: 105 MIN.

With

Giorgia Cantini...Angela Baraldi Andrea Berti...Gigio Alberti Ada...Claudia Zanella Commissioner Bruni...Andrea Renzi Lucio...Elio Germano With: Luigi Maria Burruano, Alessandra D'Elia.
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