-- Michael Yockel

Leonardo Pieraccioni's 1996 debut Il Ciclone (The Cyclone) has reportedly hit native Italian audiences like, well, a cyclone. In fact it is that nation's all-time highest-grossing film. But because comedy rarely travels well across cultural lines, it's unlikely to have the same impact here.

Not that it isn't charming. Set in and around the sunflower-strewn fields of Tuscany, the story concerns Levante (played by director Pieraccioni), the young accountant who narrates the film, which is told in flashback. Though he doesn't exactly say so, Levante cares more about balancing his books than he does about the advances of one of his female clients. We learn that he lives in a rustic country mansion with his geezer of a father, his goofball artist brother, and his sister, a lesbian who has just broken up with the village pharmacist. Brother Libero (Massimo Ceccherini), an idiot when it comes to farm work, occupies himself by painting different variations on the same scene, each of which bears the same motto: "Dio ce?" (Does God exist?) He also sleeps in a coffin. More interesting, given the close-mindedness we often associate with small-town living, is the brothers' matter-of-fact acceptance of sister Selvaggia's (Barbara Enrichi) sexual orientation. A common group activity involves manipulating homemade antennae fashioned from pots and pans in an effort to re-establish radio and TV reception at the farmhouse.

Particularly engaging is the film's depiction of the routine of rural life. Nothing ever changes. Here, everyone knows everything about everyone else, including their sexual exploits. The place is ripe for upset, which comes in the form of a touring troupe of drop-dead gorgeous flamenco dancers (the "cyclone" of the title). When the dancers arrive -- they've actually taken a wrong turn on the way to their hotel -- Levante and his family invite the troupe to camp out. The visitors interrupt the dull flow of ordinary life and give it new meaning. For Levante it means realizing he's fallen in love. The familiarity of his commute to work on his trusty moped is no longer enough to ground him. The film's underlying joke is that Levante narrates the account of how he falls for one of the dancers as though it were a story about his motorbike.

Levante is not alone in sensing change. Everyone in the town finds that his or her equilibrium has been perturbed. At the farmhouse even the radio reception is restored. These transformations are not insignificant, of course. Indeed, what Il Ciclone does best is portray the way a powerful catalyst can dramatically and immediately change even the most ingrained of circumstances. With its affable cast and affectionate storytelling, Il Ciclone may not be the funniest comedy you've ever seen, but it's surely one of the gentlest. (Sunday, February 8, 7 p.m.)

-- Robin Dougherty

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