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Artful Innocence 

*Two Family House (R)
Lions Gate Films

Director Raymond De Felitta's first feature-length film, Caf Society, premiered at Cannes in 1995. Now comes Two Family House, the Audience Award--winner at this year's Sundance Film Festival, a heartwarming glance at America in the 1950s through the eyes of someone who clearly loves the films and music of that era.

A simple and old-fashioned love story, Two Family House cannot be accused of sentimentality because the director refuses to leave out the flip side of that mid-century American dream -- love that burns itself out into disappointment, infidelity born of thwarted dreams, and racism that announces itself with a bitter, unexpected venom.

Set on Staten Island, Two Family House is the story of Buddy Visalo (Michael Rispoli), a city boy who holds close to his heart the dreams of glory given him by a brief encounter with Arthur Godfrey when Buddy was a GI. Buddy's a singer without a gig who has launched a string of failed enterprises including a limousine service, a pizza delivery service and a house painting service. Now he wants to buy a ramshackle, run-down house on Staten Island where he and his wife Estelle (Katherine Narducci) will live upstairs while running, downstairs, Buddy's Tavern.

The first hitch in the works is the discovery of a drunken Irishman, Jim O'Neary (Kevin Conway), and his enormously pregnant wife, Mary (Kelly Macdonald), squatting in the upstairs apartment of Buddy's dream house. The day Buddy, at Estelle's insistence, tries to kick them out, Mary gives birth to a baby -- the film's invisible narrator -- who turns out to be a few shades darker than anyone had expected. O'Neary leaves immediately, bottle in hand, and Mary and the baby are left abandoned and potentially homeless. But Buddy, moved by a natural generosity and growing loneliness, secretly arranges to rent a room for Mary -- a proposition he can scarcely afford -- until she's on her feet. From here, their relationship grows into a full-blown affair, his first in 11 years of marriage to Estelle.

The events that unfold are colored by a tight, thoughtful script, nice lighting and camera work, a rich, romantic soundtrack and some very solid acting. Risposi's name may not be familiar to many moviegoers, but his face certainly will be -- he is one of the finest character actors on television and in films, often playing the same kind of big-hearted, tough-talking Italian he plays here. In Two Family House, he has found a definitive star vehicle.

This is a quiet film that doesn't jump off the screen but invites the viewer to cozy up and step inside. Characters that could be drawn thinly are fleshed out with conflicting emotions. Inappropriately inflammatory episodes could ensue but do not, because these people, for the most part, behave like real humans -- disclosing more of themselves than they dare let out. De Felitta has penned and directed a gem of a movie. Be sure to see it before, like a golden autumn day, it slips out of sight.

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