With The Star Maker, Cinema Paradiso writer/director Giuseppe Tornatore returns to Sicily with a movie camera. Only this time the film inside the camera has expired.

Actually, it’s not Tornatore’s film that’s outdated, but Joe Morelli’s. A scam artist who’s arrived from Rome to fleece the rubes, Morelli (Sergio Castellitto) announces himself as a talent scout, “seeking new faces” for Universalia Films. For a mere 1,500-lire fee, he’ll conduct the screen test that could transform peasants into stars, outsiders into jet-setters. Since it’s 1953—and many of these budding actors are illiterate—Morelli suggests they just deliver some lines from an American film everyone knows, Gone With the Wind.

Rhett Butler’s speech about being a soldier from the South suits some of the Sicilian auditioners, but in front of the camera a strange thing happens: Many of the residents of these tightly knit, highly repressed villages begin to reveal themselves, telling Morelli’s camera things they’ve never said out loud before. To Tornatore, who wrote The Star Maker with Fabio Rinaudo, the cinema is liberating even when it’s a fraud.

This is an unconvincing notion, but not an unappealing one. That Morelli has no intention of developing the footage he shoots, let alone showing it to anyone, fails to diminish the spell of sitting before the camera. Morelli’s scheme doesn’t merely awaken the ambitions of the locals, from the poorest farmer to a well-placed police officer, who recites Dante for the camera; it also unlocks the yearnings of the most lost of Sicilians: the woman who can’t marry because her neighbors believe she lost her virtue to American soldiers, the gay man who hasn’t been able to get up the nerve to leave his village, a shadowy character who hasn’t spoken since the Spanish Civil War. In exchange for providing this therapy, Morelli receives both pleasure and protection: One penniless woman sleeps with him so he’ll film her daughter, and three thuggish brothers break off their assault when he offers to make them stars.

Since Morelli has been made the guardian of both their wildest dreams and their darkest secrets, he’s much more at risk than if he’d merely scammed the villagers’ money. Things begin to fall apart for him when he decides to rescue Beata (Tiziana Lodato), a naive (though not entirely innocent) young woman who was abandoned by her parents and raised by nuns. Soon Morelli has been stung himself, and exposed by some of his more sophisticated victims, who’ve discovered his racket and have the power to make him regret it.

As those who saw Cinema Paradiso understand, Tornatore really does believe in the magic of film, so Morelli’s ruin is as much the director’s revenge as it is his characters’. Still, the aftermath of the hustler’s Sicilian misadventure is much less satisfying than the escapade itself, while the fate devised for Beata is simultaneously dreadful and perfunctory. The film is more compelling when Morelli is still the blessed charlatan, working miracles despite himself. After all, as the impostor travels through Sicily’s photogenic ruins, marveling at the peasants’ expressive faces, there’s a bit of the real director in him.

Despite the location shooting and the use of amateur performers, this is hardly an example of neo-neorealism. It’s a fable that blurs the line between art and trickery, thematically as well as actually. Both Tornatore and Morelli fare better when that line remains blurred; it’s not until The Star Maker tries to tidy up its messy scenario that it loses all claim to enchantment.CP