The thinly veiled mistrust at the heart of every town lies deep within Carlo Mazzacurati's "The Right Distance."

The thinly veiled mistrust at the heart of every town lies deep within Carlo Mazzacurati’s “The Right Distance,” a handsome, charismatically performed mood piece that gets close to serious topics, but just misses properly embracing them. Wedding a new-teacher-in-a-small-town formula to a tale of racism and obsession, pic plays with Hitchcockian elements (voyeurism, a twist ending) without giving them the necessary disturbing depth, and consequently becomes a good film instead of an exceptional one. Still, that should be enough to generate respectable local coin and life in Italo fests.

Mazzacurati returns to the same unidentifiable locale in northeastern Italy, located among the flatlands of the Po River Valley, where he set some of his earliest pics, including first feature “Italian Night.” Just on the brink of manhood, Giovanni (newcomer Giovanni Capovilla) convinces Bencivegna (Fabrizio Bentivoglio), a journalist from the big city, to hire him as an anonymous local correspondent for the region’s newspaper.

Strolling into town with her suitcase behind her is comely teacher Mara (Valentina Lodovini, in a breakthrough role), catching everyone’s eye as she walks down the main drag. Among those entranced are Giovanni and Hassan (Ahmed Hafiene), a Tunisian mechanic working for Giovanni’s dad. So enthralled is Hassan that this honest, quiet man turns Peeping Tom, until Mara discovers him late at night and sends him packing.

Mara views her current placement as temporary, but even so, she’s finding life in town lonely — only bus driver Guido (Stefano Scandaletti) seems to be potential b.f. material, but he’s taken. Then Hassan endears himself to her and she forgives his earlier infraction, though when she allows their relationship to develop, she doesn’t realize the depth of his emotion.

Pic’s title comes from a career guideline Bencivegna tells Giovanni: Never get too close to the people you’re writing about, and always maintain the right distance. What that distance is, however, becomes impossible to judge, and crossing the line can have tragic consequences. Hassan appears to be a welcomed member of the stand-offish community, but as soon as things go wrong, the foreigner, of course, is held under suspicion.

If only Mazzacuratti and his fellow scripters had concentrated more on this element, pic would have packed more of a punch than it ultimately delivers. Helmer excels at generating an unsettled air around the town, but too often he appears reluctant to push further, weakening the argument by keeping the overall tone just the wrong side of bittersweet.

Mazzacuratti’s feel for actors, however, is unerring. Lodovini has the kind of spark that makes auds stand up and take notice, with a bewitching smile and warm, easy manner. Hafiene (Nouri Bouzid’s “Clay Dolls”) beautifully captures the shyness and integrity of the hard-working immigrant who knows he’ll always be one step removed from the community; together, the two bring a painful believability to their need for companionship.

Lensing by top d.p. Luca Bigazzi is expectedly rich, drawing auds in immediately with opening aerial shots, and possesses a visual force that often exceeds the written material. Music by Tin Hat also consistently hits the right tone.

The Right Distance

Italy

Production

A 01 Distribution release of a Fandango production, in collaboration with RAI Cinema. (International sales: Fandango Portobello Sales, London/Rome.) Produced by Domenico Procacci. Directed by Carlo Mazzacurati. Screenplay, Doriana Leondeff, Mazzacurati, Marco Pettenello, Claudio Piersanti.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Luca Bigazzi; editor, Paolo Cottignola; music, Tin Hat; production designer, Giancarlo Basili; costume designer, Francesca Sartori; sound (Dolby Digital), Roberto Moroni; assistant director, Davide Bertoni; casting, Jorgelina de Petris. Reviewed at Rome Film Festival (Cinema 2007), Oct. 18, 2007. Running time: 109 MIN.

With

Giovanni Capovilla, Valentina Lodovini, Ahmed Hafiene, Giuseppe Battiston, Roberto Abbiati, Natalino Balasso, Stefano Scandaletti, Mirko Artuso, Fabrizio Bentivoglio, Marina Rocco, Fadila Belkebla, Dario Cantarelli, Raffaella Cabbia Fiorin, Silvio Comis, Nicoletta Maragno, Ivano Marescotti. (Italian, Arabic dialogue)
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