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A Nuanced Human Drama With Visual Style in 'One'


American independent films don't qualify as rare, but ones like "One" definitely are. Subtle yet stylish, carefully and rigorously made, it assumes intelligence and sophistication on the part of the audience. A haunting character study of two longtime friends who reach a point where the bonds between them are as senseless as they are unbreakable, this is serious and uncompromising filmmaking in the best sense of the words.

More impressive still, "One" is the debut film for director Tony Barbieri (who co-wrote with co-star Jason Cairns). A filmmaker who understands the drama inherent in deliberateness and repose, Barbieri uses the rarest of qualities, nuance and restraint, to get under our skin with a simple yet complex human drama. And, rarer still, he makes the film's visual style a key component in his storytelling arsenal.

Admittedly influenced by European films as diverse as "The Conformist" and the classics of neo-realism, Barbieri and cinematographer Matthew Irving use spare, telling imagery combined with delicate music to draw us in. There is a confident, hypnotic classicism about the film's compositions and slow pans, about the way, for instance, the camera slowly changes focus in a key scene from two actors talking to a burning cigarette in the ashtray beside them.

Convincingly set in blue-collar San Francisco, "One" starts with its two mid-20s protagonists being alone. Nick Razca (Kane Picoy), hanging in his neighborhood bar, is a gifted ex-minor-league baseball player who washed out for mysterious reasons and still has the disaffected air of a prince in exile.

Nick is next seen picking up his oldest, closest friend Charlie O'Connell (Cairns) on his release from prison for an unstated crime. Without a family, without a place, Charlie will be staying at Nick's parents' house, where his friend still lives, and working with Nick as a sanitation man.

As a community service condition of his parole, Charlie goes to work for attractive Sarah Jenkins (Autumn Macintosh), whose company brings medical supplies to disabled children. Something in Charlie is touched by this work, but Nick, typically, speaks contemptuously of "deliveries to the retards and the cripples."

That gap in perception indicates a larger problem. Though neither one wants to acknowledge it, their time apart has done something to both men and their relationship to each other. While Charlie, who never cared about school, enrolls in junior college and seems intent on making something of himself, Nick becomes even more embittered and dismissive, aggrieved that the world has not given him what he feels entitled to. When Charlie's determination finally forces Nick into a kind of action, the results are complex and unforeseen.

There's a quiet desperation about these unfulfilled lives, a sense of sadness and melancholy that makes "One" distinctive. Both men find themselves haunted, even imprisoned, by their pasts; Charlie by what happened during his time in prison, and Nick by his minor league experience. Their frustrations with each other play at times like a disguised lover's quarrel, as both men find how impossible it is to live either with or without the other.

Perhaps what's most impressive about how "One" deals with this material is its sureness, its belief in itself. Finely acted across the board, largely by unknowns, this is a film that never pushes, that takes its time revealing its secrets, confident that its exactly calibrated effects will be worth the wait.

Speaking of waiting, though "One" greatly impressed critics at Sundance in 1998, it's taken 2 1/2 years to reach theatrical screens (as part of the excellent Shooting Gallery series that previously brought us "Croupier" and "Human Resources") because of doubts about its ability to attract an audience. If you care about the best kind of independent filmmaking, if you want the option of experiencing artistic films when you go to the movies, missing out on "One" is not an option. When a film like this appears, attention should be paid.

* Unrated. Times guidelines: adult subject matter.


Kane Picoy: Nick Razca

Jason Cairns: Charlie O'Connell

Autumn Macintosh: Sarah Jenkins

Ed Lynch: Johnny the Bartender

Gabriell Ruvolo: Iris Razca

Paul Herman: Ted Razca

A Two Nine Productions presentation, in association with 3 Ring Circus, released by Shooting Gallery. Director Tony Barbieri. Producer Wendy Cary. Screenplay Tony Barbieri and Jason Cairns. Cinematographer Matthew Irving. Editor Jeffery Stephens. Production design Wendy Cary. Art director David Bjorngard. Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes.

Exclusively at Beverly Center Cineplex, Beverly Center, La Cienega at Beverly Boulevard, (310) 652-7760.

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