Salvatore (Alessio Gallo) is a teenager that works for his father's lemon ice stall. When a local gang asks him to do them a favour, the accommodating boy acquiesces, knowing it's a dumb move to go against them. He is taken to an abandoned building in a derelict part of town where he is to play guard to a girl, Veronica (Francesca Riso), while the gang come to a verdict about her fate. Slowly, Salvatore and Veronica start to converse, and find common ground in their childhoods, even though her rebellious restless spirit seems at odds with his agreeable, polite nature.

Innocence takes a hit in tender crime drama.

ITALIAN FILM FESTIVAL: In director Leonardo di Costanzo's The Interval (L'intervallo), two teens play house in the echoing ruins of what appears to be a grand villa – in fact, it’s a derelict psyche hospital.

a riff on the gangster kidnap set-up

This pair, a boy and a girl, both a little difficult to begin with, start off teasing, bickering, and end up bonded by a shared desire to escape. They spend long hours chatting and playing fantasy games. It sounds a sweet story but it plays sad. These kids are aged beyond their years. They live in a Naples neighbourhood of such cratered disrepair it resembles nothing less than a Third World War zone. It’s a place where every move is under scrutiny from the local crime lord. Who you love, where you go, what you want to be, isn’t the stuff of dreams here; such thoughts are trouble, trouble enough to get you killed. So it’s almost unbearable to listen to this pair as they remember and joke over what it was like to have been a kid once.

The boy’s name is Salvatore (Alessio Gallo) but everyone calls him Toto. He’s 17 and fat, and has the bored, sullen air of someone who finds no safe place in routine. A school drop out, Toto ekes out a small living working for his dad selling granite – lemon and ice – from a pushcart.

The girl is Veronica (Francesca Riso). She is a voluptuous 15. Mouthy, and arrogant, she’s boldly manipulative and frightened to hell. She’s been dating a lad from a different neighbourhood. This has incurred the not inconsiderable wrath of local Camorra boss, Bernardino (Carmine Paternoster, so good in Matteo Garrone’s superb Gomorrah, 2008).

The plot of the film is a riff on the gangster kidnap set-up. While the bad guys hold hostage to Toto’s pushcart, he is charged with 'babysitting’ Veronica. He is to stay with her until Bernadino turns up and decides her punishment. Ugly questions hang in the air like noxious fumes: Is Toto a support player, a dupe, in a murder plot? Soft and even perhaps a little timid, what’s Toto to do if the more worldly and brash Veronica attempts a getaway? Still, this is not a film of action or suspense. Di Costanzo who started his career in documentary seems to have no interest in the kind of menace familiar from 'street’ genre movies. Instead, he develops a 'lived’ style around the story and creates a mood that’s immediate, seemingly casual, and swollen with poetic possibilities. The script is by Di Costanzo, Maurizio Braucci and Mariangela Barbanente. It’s the basis of a lean and occasionally oblique narrative, sunk deep in telling details of behavior; besides the two teens, there are hardly any other characters. When the bad guys show up, it’s a rude intrusion on the intimacy established between the two leads.

Di Costanzo favours long real-time takes and the sparse dialogue has the awkward, halting rhythms of actual speech, and the storytelling is deliberately fragmented in that crucial bits of drama happen off-screen. For instance, we never actually see Toto confronted by Bernadino’s henchman. The film opens with Toto going to work"¦ cut: The next thing, he’s back at the hospital minus his pushcart with Veronica there alone, and waiting. It’s a tricky manoeuvre that risks audience bewilderment but Di Costanzo and co. make the strategy pay off; it focuses the kids’ dilemma, forcing us to identify with them emotionally and at the same time prevents The Interval being confused for the gangster film it most definitely isn’t.

The look created by cinematographer Luca Bigazzi (Certified Copy) seems rooted in lived experience, yet it creates the promise of liberation. Under Bigazzi’s frequently hand-held camera, the decayed hostage location is not just a place of dust and gloom, it’s also a thing of beauty, magic and endless adventure. The lighting isn’t pretty and what the camera alights upon is a long way from what is casually thought of as charming, but still this grotty world takes on a soft splendor. As the kid’s friendship develops, the screen’s canvas opens up – the angles grow wider, the faces warmer – and it develops a kind of freedom; they might be trapped in this place, but at least for the moment they’re in charge of the playground. About halfway through the movie, the kids start to talk about what scared them as little children; ghosts and spook stories, old wives tales full of dire warnings and guilt. The imagery here takes on a fairytale aspect: the overgrown gardens of the grounds is like a delightful miniature forest; a flooded basement holds a life-boat.

This is not a happy film and the pacing is a steady stroll that demands attention and there’s little humour, but its hold is strong and deep. There’s plenty else to admire, aside from its commitment to friendship as a life force, not the least of which are the performances, especially from the two leads, both amateurs, and both quite brilliant. Still, the best thing about it, is its portrait of how innocence is lost in a place where crime rules. Braucci was one of the writers on Gomorrah and perhaps one can attribute this film’s grim heart to his influence.

Near the end of the film, there’s a scene where Veronica and Toto end up on a high rooftop and gaze out at the city that’s entrapped them. From this vantage they can see Bernadino and his crew ply their trade in the streets below. Veronica fantasies about killing them all off. As a portrait of a loss of innocence that’s pretty strong, and there’s no way one can diminish the ugliness of kids gleefully imagining murder as a means to escape their sadness. Yet, what goes deeper for me is the sense that these kids have no longer any illusions to cling to or strive for. This world of gangsters has murdered their youth and taken a big part of their lives with them.