“Caterina in the Big City,” a social comedy steeped in Italian topicality and character eccentricity, offers an exuberant introduction to a director named Paolo Virzi, too facile and assured to be a beginner. Numerous allusions are bound to skip over the heads of most Americans, but the prevailing tone is agreeably benevolent as well as clever.
The movie, opening today exclusively at the Avalon, bears surprisingly upbeat resemblances to a recent American film. Mr. Virzi seems to transform the same pretext that fueled the essentially creepy “Thirteen,” in which an impressionable teenage girl fell in with precociously degenerate company. Similar traps are observed in the Italian movie, but Mr. Virzi is disinclined to leave his heroine at the mercy of morbidly bad influences.
Caterina, a sweet-natured teenager played by Alice Teghil, is exposed to whirlwind culture shock when her parents move to Rome from a small seacoast town in Tuscany. Adopted and then discarded as an ingenuous novelty at her new school by rival classmates, a budding bohemian named Margherita (Carolina Iaquaniello) and a budding socialite named Daniela (Federica Sbrenna), the heroine is thrown off balance by her change of scene.
Determined to mock exploiters of all persuasions, Mr. Virzi gives a protective resiliency to Caterina’s setbacks and misadventures.
Morever, he recognizes that the fickle strangers are not the only threat to her pride and happiness. Caterina is the radiant only child of a glaring mismatch: Her timid mother Agata (Margherita Buy) is the target of ceaseless condescension from a disgruntled father Giancarlo (Sergio Castellitto, rebounding splendidly from the pathetic weeper “Don’t Move”). A vainglorious schoolteacher, he imagines that an overdue transfer from the sticks to Rome will make him the intellectual toast of the capital.
To her credit, Caterina is painfully fond of both parents, but it does seem merciful when Mr. Virzi relieves the domestic agony by turning the clueless Giancarlo into a belated runaway.
The movie can be faulted for shortchanging the positive aspects of Caterina’s new home and school in order to satirize the conspicuous snobs and brats — and the overprivileged parents who indulge or ignore them.
Eventually, Mr. Virzi acknowledges the desirable opportunities that could await a nice girl transplanted to the big city. One of these provides a lovely reminder of the first image of Alice Teghil, such a happy member of her school choir that she’s a bouncy distraction.
The general attitude is admirably sane: A lot of disillusion simply has to be experienced and outgrown. When painful stuff is piling up, it’s easy to despair of better alternatives, including the prospect of trustworthy friends who might be just across the courtyard.
TITLE: “Caterina in the Big City”
RATING: No MPAA rating (Adult subject matter, revolving around a teenage character — occasional profanity, comic vulgarity and allusions to delinquency)
CREDITS: Directed by Paolo Virzi. Screenplay by Mr. Virzi and Francesco Bruni. Cinematography by Arnaldo Catinari. Production design by Tonino Zera. Costume design by Bettina Pantiggia. Music by Carlo Virzi. In Italian with English subtitles.
RUNNING TIME: 106 minutes
WEB SITE: www.empirepicturesusa.com
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS