Grade: C+

In each of his previous films (“Steam,” “His Secret Life”) writer-director Ferzan Ozpetek has taken up the theme of a person drawn by unusual circumstances out of his ordinary life to something more mysterious and fulfilling, and he returns to it in his new effort. The central character this time is Giovanna (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), an unhappy Roman housewife forced to work in a poultry factory (and make pastries for sale at the local bar) while her husband Filippo (Filippo Nigro) struggles to keep hold of his job; they’re so busy making ends meet that their two young children often must be cared for by an earthy, good-natured neighbor named Ermine (Serra Yilmaz). Giovanna’s dream is to become a full-fledged baker, but she’s too old to secure an apprenticeship in the trade, and her family duties make it impossible anyway. She’s also entranced by a handsome fellow (Raoul Bova), who lives across the street from their apartment, and whom she watches in the darkness through their facing windows. Her life changes unexpectedly when she and Filippo come upon a well-dressed but disoriented old man (Massimo Girotti) one day, and though she opposes the idea, her husband insists on bringing him home. Initially standoffish, Giovanni gradually takes to the amnesiac fellow, who evinces some knowledge of pastry-making; the old man also becomes the means by which she’s introduced to the man across the way, who turns out to be a banker named Lorenzo, and the two inch toward involvement while working together to discover something about the lost fellow’s past, which, as periodic flashbacks suggest, involved a doomed love affair and some frantic activity on the night when occupying Nazi troops rounded up Rome’s Jews for removal.

“Facing Windows” is a peculiar hybrid of a picture, a kind of bizarre fairy-tale with almost grimly realistic aspects. And though it has romantic elements–both straight (in terms of Giovanna and Lorenzo) and gay (in terms of the past of the old man, who we learn is named Davide, and who had a lover named Simone)–they’re ultimately treated as secondary to considerations of family loyalty and community responsibility. The basic problem with all this is that the parts are never fully integrated into a smoothly satisfying whole. The imbalance is especially acute in terms of the characters. Simply put, the Giovanna-Filippo-Lorenzo triangle doesn’t manage to become truly engaging. Partially that’s the fault of the writing, but the performances aren’t strong enough to make up for the weaknesses. Mezzogiorno gives the woman a smoldering intensity beneath her rather grim exterior, but fails to endow the character with much spark or likableness. As Filippo, Nigro has a mostly reactive role. And Bova is stiffly good-looking but hardly charismatic as Lorenzo. All of this shifts the viewer’s interest more and more toward Davide, who becomes the film’s center and most fascinating figure. Happily Girotti plays him beautifully, drawing on his years of experience to fashion, with deft, light strokes, a character who’s quietly compelling and attractive; he remains so even toward the close, when he becomes a sort of fairy-godfather to Giovanna. An additional asset is the gleefully uninhibited performance of Yilmaz as Giovanna’s corner-cutting friend. The elegant look of the film is also worthy of praise; Gianfilippo Corticelli’s cinematography has a creamy, lush texture that actually endows the on-screen actions with greater dramatic depth than they actually earn.

“Facing Windows” is thus a film that boasts some very intriguing ideas but lacks a unifying structure to give them cogency. To draw a comparison from Giovanna’s occupational goal, it’s like a pastry that lacks consistency–it’s part delicate treat, but also part soggy disappointment. As such it doesn’t quite delight the cinematic palate.