The story of "Padre Padrone," the award-winning Italian movie opening today at the Outer Circle 2, promises a new classic in the stirring tradition of "The Wild Child" and "The Miracle Worker." The source material is an autobiography by Gavino Ledda, a Sardinian linguist, published in 1974. The eldest son of a Sardinian shepherd, Ledda had been removed from the village school at age 6 by his father and compelled to endure 14 years of isolation and illiteracy while tending the family's flacks.

Barred by his illiteracy from migration to Germany as a laborer, Ledda eventually achieved his liberation through military eservice. Despite a regional dialect incomprehensible to his comrades, Ledda presevered through advanced training as a radio technician and tank driver.Ultimately, he not only caught up with the formal schooling he's missed but also surpassed it, publishing a doctoral thesis on the dialect he grew up speaking.

In outline this chronicle could scarcely be more heroic, mythic or fundamentally moving. It's a potential powerhouse, a simple but awesome account of spiritual survival in the face of dreadful family, social and psychological liabilities. Ledda himself appears at the opening and close of the film, which was made by the brother team of Paolo and Vittorio Taviani on a $300,000 budget underwritten by the Italian television network, RAI, and later blown up from 16 to 35mm for theatrical release.

Indeed, the single most heartfelt sequence belongs to Ledda, when he recapitualtes his story shortly before the fadeout. What the movie lacks, despite the austerity of its budget, is a dramatic style as direct eloquent and haunting as the speaking style of the subject himself.

The Tavianis are given to flamboyant, near-operatic embellishment with material that seems to demand a bare, unadorned style, a heightened form of realism that doesn't explode realistic settings or conventions.

"Padre Padrone," which won both the grand prize and the international critics' prize, an unprecedented double, at last year's Cannes Festival, is a debatable artistic case, but it seems to me that the filmmakers' approach inhibits the most satisfying and far-reaching expression of the drama inherent in Ledda's story. The Tavianis defy certain expectations created by the greatest tradition in Italian filmmaking itself, the neo-realist movement.

Their imagery is frequently conceived with epic reverberations in mind - particularly the key emblematic shot of a large, windblown oak tree backlit at night - but their movie doesn't have the sustained, haunting visual intensity of many pictures shot in similar remote or impoverished surroundings, notably Visconti's "La Terra Trema," made in Sicily in 1947, and Vittorio De Seta's seldom-revived "Bandits of Orgosolo," made on Sardinia in 1961.

The Tavianis are more expressive with sound than imagery. This emphasis has a thematic justification in the young protagonist's forced isolation, which naturally makes him more conscious of natural sounds and his own inner voices.

The movie opens with Omero Antonutti, as Ledda's ruthless father, invading the classroom to extract his son and remind the other boys, "your turn will come!" The Tavianis attempt their first sound scherzo in the wake of his threatening paternal outburst: a series of whispered, overlapping voice-overs orchestrate the fears of paternal authority shared by all the boys.

In this instance the Tavianis keep their technique under control. This sudden plunge into thought processes may defy reality, but it doesn't seem to violate the material. Yet the Tavianis persist in overloading their stylistic circuits. An image of copulating sheep triggers a panting, heaving sequence of sympathetic vibrations encompassing the entire community. An itinerant musician whose accordion fascinates Ledda emits not the lonely accondion sound that might have touched one to the quick in a rural setting but the recorded sound of a whole band doing the "Fledermaus" waltz.

Desperate to "speak" through a musical instrument himself, Ledda trades two slaughtered sheep for a broken accordion and squeezes out phrases that the filmmakers literally translate into words of longing. These transcriptions are then answered and translated by a neighbouring shepherd on a woodwind instrument. For some reason a naturalistic conception of this form of communication isn't sufficient for the Tavianis. They overorchestrate and overinterpret, creating a layer of "art" that eventually can obscure or smother the devastating authenticity of the subject matter.

Gavino Ledda succeeded in freeing himself from the sort of bondage that his father felt was necessary to impose for the economic survival of their family. The Tavianis have inflicted a different sort of bondage on his story of that liberaton.

They must believe they've enriched the story's meanings, and the juries at Cannes seem to have concurred. I wish I could agree, but "Padre Padrone" seems a botched opportunity at a great emotional experience, a potential but unrealized classic.