The strongest reason–indeed, about the only one–for seeing “Don’t Move,” the second directing outing from actor Sergio Castellitto (who also co-stars and co-wrote the script with his wife Margaret Mazzantini, after her novel), is Penelope Cruz. With her appearance plained down to an extraordinary degree and dressed in distinctly unflattering clothes, the beautiful Spanish actress looks every much the dowdy, long-suffering rural woman named Italia with whom Castellitto’s character, a married surgeon named Timoteo, has a long affair (after raping her on their first meeting). But Cruz doesn’t merely inhabit the role in external terms, concealing her natural attractiveness beneath makeup and wardrobe. Her performance is strong enough almost to make one believe in her character–a woman so brutalized and beaten down by life, so completely devoid of self-worth, that she’s willing to give her deepest affection to a man who’s taken her by force, even if it is only after he returns to apologize.

But the operative word is “almost.” Cruz is excellent, but even her willingness to disappear into a character so totally different from herself can’t rescue the film as a whole from its combination of soapoperatic melodrama and pretentious musings on life and love. Because Italia is not the central figure here, though “Don’t Move” might be a lot better if she were. Instead the focus of the story is on Timoteo, a decidedly imperfect fellow whose inability to be honest with other people–or himself–is the catalyst for the miseries that befall those unlucky enough to fall within his orbit; this is a tale of a deeply flawed man who, accidentally perhaps but also in a cowardly way, brings harm to others, especially those whom he loves in his selfish fashion. As the film opens, the surgeon learns that his daughter has been in a motorcycle accident and suffered a head trauma requiring an immediate operation. (It will later be suggested that her father’s willingness to indulge the girl, even taking her side against his stricter wife, may have had a role in the accident.) As he awaits word on the outcome, his mind wanders. He recalls the scene from his childhood when his father abandoned the family, as well as moments from his marriage. But it’s the appearance of a mysterious woman in the hospital courtyard–she drags a chair out onto the bricks and sits down on it in the rain, her back to him as he watches her from a window–that triggers his most extended recollection, of Italia, the woman he met in her tiny village when his car broke down on the road and she invited to her place to use the phone. He first attacks her in a drunken fit, then sheepishly returns to apologize, and the two begin a passionate relationship. Timo’s elegant wife Elsa (Claudia Gerini) is suspicious but tolerates his frequent absences, it seems; and when the surgeon pledges to leave Elsa for Italia, his wife’s unexpected pregnancy intervenes. It doesn’t, however, end the affair, which finds Italia making sacrifices that prove her utter devotion.

From this summary it should be clear that although female characters–Italia, Elsa, the daughter, even Ada (Angela Finocchiaro), the doctor who operates on Timo’s child–are important parts of this story, they’re all defined, to a large extent, by their connection to the man at the center of things. And it’s in this male figure that the picture falters. The doctor is a self-serving, vacillating fellow–he’s incapable of moving from the middle-ground between his marriage and his affair, almost paralyzed it seems–and though he’s certainly not portrayed in a simply sympathetic light, he’s never brought into full focus for us either. Part of that derives from the writing, involving him but also Elsa and Italia, that leaves the relationships opaque and allusive to a large degree. But a good deal of it also comes from Castellitto’s performance, which veers from the somnolent to the overwrought (particularly in several sequences toward the close)–a factor, perhaps, of Castellitto’s self-indulgence as director. This weakness hobbles the picture throughout, and though Cruz goes far to redeem it, she’s a peripheral virtue in a piece that demands greater strength at the center. The direction is also to be faulted for allowing scenes to drag on, making for a sluggish, and at two hours unduly long, film.

Visually “Don’t Move” has been given an appropriately moody look by cinematographer Gianfilippo Corticelli, and the behind-the-camera elements are all strong. But ultimately the only aspect of the film that transcends the narrative and directorial weaknesses is Cruz’s scorching turn, and that’s not quite enough. So the advice about “Don’t Move” has to be: “Don’t go.”