'One hundred strokes' is a big hit for Melissa in Italian cinemas

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The new Harry Potter is on the way, the March of the Penguins and Roberto Benigni's romantic farce set in war-torn Iraq still bestride the big screens. But suddenly the talk of the Italian cinema is Melissa P, the adaptation of the scandalous autobiography of a Sicilian Lolita.

One Hundred Strokes of the Brush before Bed, the sexual memoirs of a 17-year-old from the suburbs of Catania in northern Sicily, caused a major sensation when it was published last year by a small and rather classy house, Fazi Editore (who also handle Fay Weldon and Colm Toibin).

A bestseller in Italy means that a book sells 20,000 copies - but to the pleasurable stupefaction of the publisher, 100 Strokes... has sold more than 850,000. It has been translated into numerous foreign languages, including English, and been gushed over by ageing reviewers on both sides of the Atlantic. And now here comes the film.

Co-starring our own Geraldine Chaplin as the erring youngster's granny, Melissa P took nearly €2m (£1.4m) in its first week on release and came in third at the box office, behind only Roberto Benigni's The Tiger and the Snow, and a film called Manuale d'Amore.

And Melissa P is bringing back to the cinemas in vast crowds that age group that every cinema chain most hankers after: the voracious popcorn and soft drink consumers aged 15 to 24. According to a spot check by La Stampa newspaper, the vast majority of the audience at a recent showing of Melissa P were girls of around 15 years old, just slightly younger than the heroine herself.

But the film, like many that go down a storm with curious adolescents, has not met with such approval in other quarters. Indeed, it has fared no better than the book, leapt upon by the scandalised guardians of Catholic Italy when it was first published. Moral watchdogs protest bitterly about the publicity the film has enjoyed. Because, like the book, the film pulls no punches at all when it comes to sexual experience.

An innocent 14-year-old at the start of the book, the heroine loses her virginity to "Daniele" (names altered by the author), he of the "dazzling white teeth and strawberry-flavoured breath". Melissa then proceeds briskly to group sex with five boys at a time, lesbian sex, anal sex, married-man sex and finally True Love with a chap called "Claudio" - though in real life, Melissa told one interviewer, that great dream had proved no more substantial than the others.

The film-goers interviewed by La Stampa uniformly found the film revolting and crass, and not a patch on the book. "Whatever happened to the romance?" complained one. "There wasn't even a trace. This film is crude and slimy, it's like watching a surgical operation live..."

Melissa P herself - real name Melissa Panarello - apparently feels the same way, having fallen out with the director, Luca Guadagnino, in the early stages of filming. "They've made a travesty of the main character," Ms Panarello stormed. "This film has nothing to do with me."

But it has probably set her up for life.