How many British children, inner-city children especially, have ever seen a circus? It’s different on the continent, where around 2,000 troupes travel around constantly.

Nonetheless, this ancient art-form lives on in illustration, story-telling and idiom. Do people still say they are going to “run away with the circus”? Let us hope so, because that is the promise held out in Nevia, a rather lovely Italian film that is available until 20:00 on Tuesday 16 June.

I say lovely, but at first it is anything but. Nevia (sensitively played by newcomer Virginia Apicella) is 17 years old and living in Naples in an estate made from stacked up shipping containers. That’s not quite as bad as it sounds: inside, the containers are more like prefabs, with bathrooms and electricity. But they are cramped and the surroundings are insalubrious. Nevia shares her home with her young sister Enza (Rozy Franzese), her grandmother and a lodger. Nanà (Pietra Montecorvino) is up to her ears in criminal activity: trading illicit mobile phones, with an occasional lurch into prostitution. She is also cruel to both sisters, lining up Nevia, who looks a lot younger than her years, as prey for the son of a local gangster and at one point shearing off a chunk of her hair out of spite.

Nevia, though, is undaunted. She drags rubbish around the estate and makes sure her sister gets to school. When she is not doing that, she is shuttling the girls back and forth to kind Auntie. Although Auntie is not legally allowed to take the sisters in, she is the only person who offers shelter and any kind of consolation, albeit of the bleak variety. “How can you save yourself here?” asks Nevia, desperate to avoid being dragged into her family’s illicit activities. “Being born female here is bad luck,” says Auntie. Nevia, meanwhile, lights candles before a photograph of her dead mother and tries not to think about her father, who is in prison.

So far, so miserable. An excellent slice of social realism, but not something to lift the heart. But then a circus comes to town, and Nevia experiences the transformative effects of working with animals and knowing, for perhaps the first time in her life, a kind man who wants nothing from her. He puts clown make-up on her, and she is happy; later, she puts on make-up for the odious Salvatore, who plans to seduce her at a showy 18thbirthday party, and is overcome with disgust.

Circus, of course, has its own meaning in cinema, especially Italian cinema. It suggests Fellini, and the cruel drama of La Strada. Nevia does not aim for that kind of mythic flamboyance. Instead it is an affectingly real story, beautifully shot and enhanced by the wonderfully natural interplay between the two sisters; an excellent debut by Nunzia de Stefano, whose own experiences of living in such a container park were crucial to the film’s authenticity.

Near the end, there is a particularly telling shot. Running away once again from the unpicturesque squalor of their lives, the girls catch a coach in front of the pristine, white, modernistic splendour of Zaha Hadid’s Afragola railway station. Rarely was the contrast between two Italys better expressed. It will take more than a dab of greasepaint to cover that up.

Nevia is available until 20:00 on Tuesday 16 June. Details here: https://ciff.shift72.com/film/nevia/