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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Ciao, Professore' Rounds Up Lessons


Lina Wertmuller's "Ciao, Professore" is a welcome, modest change from the blustery, slam-bang productions that made her reputation. "Swept Away" or "Seven Beauties" it's not. Her approach to drama is still exhaustingly knockabout but, because she's not working a political/sexual agenda in her new film, it doesn't seem as punishing.

The film is about what happens when a primary school teacher from northern Italy, Marco Sperelli (Paolo Villaggio), gets mistakenly transferred to a school in the southern village of Corzano. Marco doesn't want to be in this hothouse community of tiny truants, and for a long time his teaching job consists of rounding up his students in the streets and plunking them down in his classroom. Marco isn't a martinet--he tries to reach his students by appealing to their best instincts--but it's only after he slaps one of them that he gains their respect. (He regrets both the slap and the respect it earns him.) Because he cares about the children he becomes a hero to them.

Wertmuller and her team of five screenwriters don't spend much time involving us in Marco's classroom teaching. For a movie that centers on education there's very little learning going on. The lessons are all outside the classroom.

This is not exactly a novel approach--just about every classroom film from "To Sir, With Love" to "Renaissance Man" tried the same thing. And there's something dubious about a movie about the relationship between a teacher and his students that neglects the reasons for the learning in the first place. Still, the streets of Corzano are so bursting with life that you don't regret Wertmuller's decision to bring the film outdoors. There's lots to learn there too.

The children, many of them unprofessionals, are charmers, and Wertmuller indulges them--she practically pinches their cheeks for us. Hers is mostly an idealized view of childhood, but Italians have always had a special feeling for childhood revelry (and heartbreak too, as in many of De Sica's greatest films). The one bad seed in the bunch, the punkish Raffaele (Ciro Esposito), is in the movie to be redeemed.

But he doesn't go entirely flabby on us. When Marco, in a fit of pique, punches a nun, Raffaele reacts with awe. So do we.

* MPAA rating: R, for language. Times guidelines: It includes a scene of nun being punched and some don't-try-this-at-home daredevil stunts by preteens.

'Ciao, Professore'

Paolo Villaggio: Marco

Ciro Esposito: Raffaele

Mario Bianco: Nicola

Adriano Pantaleo: Vincenzio

A Miramax Films presentation. Director Lina Wertmuller. Executive producer Silvio Berlusconi. Screenplay by Wertmuller, Leo Benvenuti, Piero De Bernardi, Alessandro Bencivenni. Cinematographer Gianni Tafani. Editor Perluigi Leonardi. Costumes Gino Persico. Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes.

* In limited release at the AMC Cecchi Gori Fine Arts Theatre, 8556 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 652-1330; and Edwards South Coast Village, at the corner of Sunflower and Plaza Drive in Costa Mesa, (714) 540-0594.

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