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Caro Diario is the first of Nanni Moretti’s eight features to get an American commercial release, and Moretti veterans warn that it provides a misleading first impression of the director’s work. But then Moretti seems to have a way with misleading first impressions: The blithe opening segment of this three-part film offers little preparation for what’s to come in his engagingly idiosyncratic cinematic essay.

Since Moretti is a writer/director who portrays a semiautobiographical character in his somewhat comic, somewhat brainy films, he’s been called the Italian Woody Allen. That’s not entirely unfair, as is demonstrated by Diario‘s second chapter, in which Nanni and his scholarly friend Gerardo (Renato Carpentieri) go island-hopping near Sicily, ostensibly looking for a quiet place where they can work. Here, Moretti mixes lyrical travelogue with shtick, and sometimes overworks the latter: The duo find themselves on an island where all the couples have only one child, whose behavior tyrannizes their parents and disrupts telephone communication; a running gag, in which the TV-averse Gerardo falls under the spell of American soap operas, runs too long.

Caro Diario means “dear diary,” and the movie’s handwritten opening credits yield to a shot of Nanni writing in his journal. Unlike Allen, who doesn’t seem to get out much, Nanni is soon on the move, touring Rome and its suburbs on his Vespa scooter. It’s not the classic Rome he’s showing us, and his is not the classic outlook. He visits a much-maligned housing project and deems it “not so bad,” takes us to a plaza where people dance to music that sounds Cuban, and finally tools off to the site where director Pier Paolo Pasolini was murdered.

Despite the apparent significance of the latter pilgrimage, Moretti is not a director of Pasolini-esque flamboyance. His Vespa rambles scored to Leonard Cohen’s self-mocking “I’m Your Man,” Nanni pursues simple pleasures and common-sense assessments. He announces his enthusiasm for Flashdance and then happens upon Jennifer Beals walking down a Roman street. (This is an Annie Hall moment, of course, although I don’t remember Woody carefully inspecting Marshall McLuhan’s shoes.) He goes to see Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer and finding it, quite reasonably, repulsive, sets out to meet the Roman movie critic who praised it; he accosts the writer in his bed and tortures him by reading excerpts from his gushing reviews.

The offhand charm of this subjective itinerary continues even as Moretti drastically changes the mood with “Doctors,” the final episode. It turns out that the filmmaker has recently been treated for a serious illness, and the possibility of his death darkens the segment, which is yet another minor-league Odyssey. This time Moretti travels from doctor to doctor, dermatologist to allergist, holistic masseuse to acupuncturist, in search of relief. At least he brings back a trophy from these arduous travels: a stunning array of prescription drugs, as well as a large, if less tangible, supply of bad advice—some of it potentially more injurious even than the tip to go see Henry.

Moretti is reportedly more affable in Diario than its predecessors, and those who don’t find him so will wonder what they’re doing in the theater; there’s not much here other than his skeptical yet good-natured sensibility. For much of the film, though, sense and sensibility achieve an ideal balance. Some small movies are as anonymous as their blockbuster cousins, but Diario has enough personality to outfit a dozen Touchstone releases.