Facing Windows provides a fine showcase for a rising star of Italian cinema, Giovanna Mezzogiorno (The Last Kiss), and a final salute to an Italian veteran, Massimo Girotti, perhaps best-known as the lead in Ossessione, Luchino Visconti's 1943 version of The Postman Always Rings Twice. Both actors (along with the film) won top honors at the David Di Donatello Awards, Italy's Oscars, but Girotti's triumph was posthumous--he died in January 2003, before the film's successful Italian release.

Girotti's character is the link that connects two very disparate storylines. Giovanna (Mezzogiorno), a young mother who works in a poultry factory, and her struggling husband Filippo (Filippo Nigro) encounter a disoriented elderly man (Girotti) on the streets of Rome and wind up bringing him home to their apartment. He calls himself Simone, but has no recollection where he lives. The police aren't much help, and the goodhearted Filippo is inclined to let the old gent stay, over Giovanna's objections. Giovanna plans to bring Simone back to the police station after dropping off the cakes and pies she bakes for a local pub to earn extra cash, but the old man wanders off while she's on her errand. She's joined in her search by Lorenzo (Raoul Bova), the handsome young neighbor she secretly spies on from her window; as fate would have it, he's also been observing her. As Giovanna and Lorenzo get more deeply involved in solving the mystery of Simone, a chaste romance blossoms. Dissatisfied with her job and unexciting home life with her husband and two children, Giovanna dreams of running away with Lorenzo, who's about to be transferred to a new job in Ischia. The influence of Simone, who turns out to be an amazing pastry chef, also fuels her ambitions to start a new career as a baker.

Giovanna's dilemma is loosely paralleled with the saga of Simone, which we first glimpse in a mysterious 1943 flashback of a young man murdering the owner of the bakery where he works. Eventually, Giovanna and Lorenzo discover that the old man is a concentration camp survivor named Davide, and that Simone was his secret lover before the Nazis swooped down on the Italian Jews in Rome. Davide, too, had to make a momentous decision between his own happiness and other responsibilites. Gianni Romoli and director Ferzan Ozpetek's screenplay tries to make these two story threads equivalent, but one is a question of life and death on a big canvas, and the other is the stuff of TV soap operas.

Despite this miscalculation, Facing Windows, with its puzzle-like narrative, is consistently involving. Girotti provides most of the movie's weight, gradually opening up his character from a fog of mental confusion to a tentatively warm and elegant presence, capped by a bravura monologue as he describes the bitter decision Davide was forced to make as the Nazi troopers closed in. It's a shame the actor didn't live to witness the deserved acclaim he received for this role.

The beautiful Mezzogiorno is always compelling to watch, bringing depth to her character's romance-novel-style conflicts. She's not exactly helped in her cause by Bova, who, despite his matinee-idol good looks, is somewhat bland in the role of extramarital temptation; hubbie Nigro, no matter his flareups and occasional irresponsibility, is a lot more interesting.

Oztepek, a Turk who's been working in Italy since 1978, first broke through in 1997 with Steam--The Turkish Bath, a Turkish/Italian tale that found success in the gay movie market, and solidified his gay audience with 2001's His Secret Life. With its more ambitious scale and Italian award credentials, Facing Windows should win him an even wider art-house following here, especially if American audiences are alerted to the career-capping performance of the late Girotti.

--Kevin Lally