Do doctors have a twisted psychology? For some reason or another, they seem to be suitable signifiers of the precariousness of the human condition, given that they constantly have to deal with life and death and are able to be detached enough to see the human body as a mere functioning biological organism. It could also be the uniform they wear which appeals to the fetishist in all of us. In any case, hospitals make for an effective setting for thrillers tinted with blue-green filters. TV loves doctors and hospitals these days.

The new Italian film Don’t Move presents a doctor in a more realistic way, as an urban professional afflicted by loneliness within a lukewarm marriage and the painful memories of a failed love affair. Not that the profession of a protagonist of a film is always crucial to the story, but in Don’t Move, directed and starred by Sergio Castellito and based on the book written by his wife Margaret Mazzantini, it is so entwined with the narrative that it sets its tone and provides material for the symbolic language of the director.

Castellito plays Timoteo, a fairly good-looking middle-aged doctor whose daughter is taken to the hospital where he works after suffering a scooter accident. But the accident triggers more than the usual family drama: it puts his life in perspective and a painful memory of a love affair comes back to haunt him in vivid colours. His daughter may be the one bleeding on the hospital bed, but it is his metaphorical heart that is haemorrhaging.

As a premise, this is pretty much a commonplace idea – we all unearth memories when faced with drastic situations. But Castellito handles the material with a fertile imagination, strong cinematography and a firm hand in actor direction. Castellito seems to be good at directing himself, too: he’s an intense actor and his doctor is angst itself, as the slightly screwed up man plagued by frustration and a need for sexual power.

The film is an odd combination of naturalism, realism and a touch of genre-playing (rainy neon-lit scenes tip a wink to film noir, while the graphic inclusion of a ghost makes a sneaky reference to the supernatural thriller). It also flirts with erotic realism: the sex scenes are not extremely graphic, but their psychology is. Penelope Cruz slums it as Italia, the rough counterpoint to Timoteo’s nice, middle-class and beautiful Elsa (Claudia Gerini). It looks like Cruz may have taken lessons in the Anna Magnani school of acting: she’s very convincing as a down-and-out Italian woman. Her portrayal of a vulnerable, love-thirsty, lonely outsider is intense, moving and real.

Don’t Move is a subtle film that tells the old story of impossible love from a new, unexpected perspective. It portrays the pain that stems from loss and life’s non events with horrific sharpness. But it is, in the end, an optimistic, almost esoteric text set in an unfamiliar Italy that leaves things open to interpretation and the vagaries of sentiment, largely due to its symbolic density. Castellito is one to watch out for in Italian cinema.