An ecologically minded Italo engineer finds himself in judicial quicksand after he pulls over his borrowed car to help someone lying in the road, in this intriguing, only lightly absurdist drama.

An ecologically minded Italo engineer finds himself in judicial quicksand after he pulls over his borrowed car to help someone lying in the road, in intriguing, only lightly absurdist drama “The Ideal City.” Thesp Luigi Lo Cascio (“The Best of Youth”) makes a capable helming debut and also stars as the protag, who’s not sure what actually happened that rainy night, but who quickly learns the Italian legal system isn’t interested in uncertainties or even in figuring out the truth. Local auds should respond to a pic that, despite tonal inconsistencies, is engaging and singular enough to merit wider breakout.

Sicilia-born, Siena-based Michele Grassadonia (Lo Cascio) is a talented architect who not only designs buildings, but also creates contraptions he uses in his own home to fulfill his green-thinking goal of living without running water or electricity for a year. He purposefully hasn’t had a car for almost a decade, but when his boss (Massimo Foschi) asks him to take one of his vehicles to pick up a colleague from the countryside for a formal business dinner, he’s too embarrassed to decline.

On the road, with blinding rain pouring down, Michele hits something crossing the street and subsequently rear-ends a parked car. Strangely enough, there’s no trace of whatever it was he first hit, though he leaves a note for the owner of the damaged vehicle before continuing his journey (the rain immediately renders his message illegible).

Things get really complicated when, some miles on, he sees a black, garbage-bag-like shape lying in the road. Michele stops to remove it from the street only to find it’s actually a severely injured man. He immediately calls for an ambulance, and is initially hailed as a hero, especially when it turns out the man is one of Siena’s most important luminaries. But police are suspicious, since Michele’s car obviously hit something, leading to a long road of accusations and interrogations by policemen and judges.

Though he only wanted to help a man, Michele suddenly finds himself in a situation where there are many uncertainties about the true version of the story — what did he hit if not the man in the road, and why is there no proof of the car he slammed into? — which mean that, in the eyes of the law, his version probably isn’t true.

That things feel Kafkaesque should come as no surprise, since the actor-director has done Kafka onstage, though the film’s key influences are cinematic. Essentially, this is a story of a Hitchcock-style innocent man whose moral rectitude and honesty are his own worst enemies, with Lo Cascio using borrowed genre elements to pimp up his contrasting study of an upright man fighting a diseased system. This works well whenever mystery or thriller elements are introduced, though the film’s attempts at humor (involving the eccentric ways in which Michele tries to save energy) and quasi-romance with an ambassador’s daughter (model Catrinel Marlon) are less successful, betraying the rookie helmer’s inexperience in handling complex tonal shifts.

Ensemble acting, including Lo Cascio’s mother, Aida Burruano, as his character’s mom; and her brother, Luigi Maria Burruano, as the family lawyer; is solid if unexceptional.

Assembly is pro, with the atmospheric, percussion-heavy score, including good of the vibraphone, another plus.

The Ideal City

Italy

Production

A Bibi Film production, in association with Rai Cinema. (International sales: Rai Trade, Rome.) Produced by Angelo Barbagallo. Directed by Luigi Lo Cascio. Screenplay, Lo Cascio, Massimo Gaudioso, Desideria Rayner, Virginia Borgi.

Crew

Camera (color, 35mm-to-HD, widescreen), Pasquale Mari; editor, Rayner; music, Andrea Rocca; production designers, Ludovica Ferrario, Alice Mangano, costume designer, Maria Rita Barbera; sound (Dolby Digital), Fulgenzio Ceccon; assistant director, Nicola Marzano. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (Critics' Week -- opener), Aug. 30, 2012. Running time: 105 MIN.

With

Luigi Lo Cascio, Catrinel Marlon, Luigi Maria Burruano, Massimo Foschi, Alfonso Santagata, Aida Burruano, Roberto Herlitzka.

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