When in Rome

A fish out of water tale that uses a junior high student as the pesci and Rome's upper crust haunts as the acqua, CaterinaintheBigCity(Caterina vaincitta)gives self-centered Americans a glimpse into Italy's simmering class warfare and rising fascist politics—oh, and did I mention this is a comedy?

Actually, Paolo Virz's film has many light-hearted moments, most of them centered around the title character's irascible father Giancarlo (Sergio Castellitto). An accounting teacher in the sticks, Giancarlo has students who greet him every morning with the kind of lifeless faces you'd find in a George Romero flick. So he packs up his dim-bulb wife (Margherita Buy) and family for a move out of the provinces and back into his hometown, Rome, where he believes his literary talents will finally be recognized and his dreams of celebrityhood will finally be fulfilled.

But it is not Giancarlo who breaks into the upper crust, it is his 15-year-old daughter Caterina (newcomer Alice Teghil; keep an eye on her), who unwittingly becomes the rope in an emotional tug of war waged by the hippie daughters of radical-chic intellectuals and the spoiled brats of scary right-wing politicos (some of whom secretly break out the Sieg Heils for the late Mussolini). When Giancarlo catches wind of who his daughter is hanging with, his attempts to ingratiate himself into various inner circles go from darkly humorous to squirming-in-your-seat embarrassing to, ultimately, tragic.

Virz (Living ItUp)finely fleshes out a smart script, although when it came to exterior street scenes I wished he'd scaled back on the hand-held shots, which left me nauseated. Or maybe I ate a bad clam.

Which brings up a related quibble: when Caterina and her friends join in a crowded street protest, they bump into Roberto Benigni, in full 1999-Oscar-speech mode, joyously announcing: "I protest everything." InEnglish!If it took a totally unnecessary cameo by the only Italian actor Americans know to win this small film U.S. distribution, perhaps it was worth it. But I found it jarring and ridiculous. Or maybe that bad clam was talking. (Now playing at EdwardsUniversity,Irvine)

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