"La terra" is the most energetic and appealing of helmer-actor Sergio Rubini's eight movies to date. Fabrizio Bentivoglio heads a bold ensemble cast as an exiled son who returns to his native Puglia and finds himself thrust into the role of <I>capo famiglia</I>.

A compulsively watchable combo of lop-sided Italian comedy and Southern film noir, “La terra” is the most energetic and appealing of helmer-actor Sergio Rubini’s eight movies to date. Fabrizio Bentivoglio heads a bold ensemble cast as an exiled son who returns to his native Puglia and finds himself thrust into the role of capo famiglia. Pic did fair business on its opening weekend Feb. 24, bolstered by critical paeans and word-of-mouth. Stunning location work and a story playing off familiar Italian stereotypes could well catch the fancy of offshore auds.

Though the mafia is not involved here, the clever screenplay by Rubini and his co-writers has a lot of other things to say about the violence that ails the South. Luigi Di Santo (Bentivoglio) has lived in Milan since, as a teenager, he accidentally killed his father during a family feud. As the curtain rises, he steps off a train in the deserted, sun-bleached town where he grew up. He intends to spend only a few days to sign some papers so he and his three brothers can sell the farmland they inherited.

But the town immediately draws him into its intrigues. His wacky businessman brother, Michele (Emilio Solfrizzi), is fixated on running for political office, though he’s up to his ears in debt to local money-lender Tonino (Rubini). The violent, sinister Tonino is also linked to Luigi’s hot-headed half-brother, Aldo (Massimo Venturiello), who’s in love with Tonino’s Romanian mistress, Tania (Alisa Bistrova).

When Tonino is shot during an eerie night-time religious procession, both brothers fall under suspicion. Even Luigi has his doubts.

The youngest brother, Mario (Paolo Briguglia), is a clean-cut volunteer in a school for the handicapped. It takes Luigi some time to realize that the sexy Angela (Giovanna Di Rauso) is Mario’s ex. This part of the film feels a bit slapped together and unfocused. The script’s other major weakness is the solution to the whodunit: It works, but only by the skin of the dead man’s teeth.

If “La terra” isn’t the hottest mystery around, it knows how to twist its suspense elements into offbeat comedy. Luigi, the outsider from Milan, is the lens of normality through which auds view the grotesque events of the South.

Bentivoglio hits his marks as the level-headed modern Italian. Rubini couldn’t be a more repulsive contrast as the slimy Tonino.

As a director, Rubini, who started in 1990 with the notable “The Station,” takes a giant leap forward compared with undistinguished recent efforts like “Love Returns.” Despite lapses of control and much exaggeration, he puts his finger on the crass foolishness of contemporary Italy.

Fabio Cianchetti’s exhilarating lensing echoes classic spaghetti Westerns in the burnt landscapes of Nardo, Lecce, Mesagne and Brindisi. The recurring pizzicato in Pino Donaggio’s humorously over-the-top score recalls Leone’s favorite composer, Ennio Morricone, doing Elio Petri’s political thrillers.

La Terra

Italy

Production

A Medusa release of a Fandango production, in association with Medusa Film/Sky. (International sales: The Works, London.) Produced by Domenico Procacci. Directed by Sergio Rubini. Screenplay, Angelo Pasquini, Carla Cavaluzzi, Rubini.

Crew

Camera (color), Fabio Cianchetti; editor, Giogio Franchini; music, Pino Donaggio; production designer, Luca Gobbi; costume designers, Patrizia Chericoni, Florence Emir; sound (Dolby Digital), Tullio Morganti. Reviewed at Embassy, Rome, Feb. 26, 2006. Running time: 112 MIN.

With

Fabrizio Bentivoglio, Paolo Briguglia, Massimo Venturiello, Emilio Solfrizzi, Claudia Gerini, Giovanna Di Rauso, Sergio Rubini, Marisa Eugeni, Alisa Bistrova, Daniela Mazzacane, Maurizio Rega.
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