The tale of the unlikely friendship between a working-class mechanic and a film industry windbag brought together by heart attacks.

Three top-notch thesps deliver the goods in “A Question of the Heart,” helmer Francesca Archibugi’s performance-driven tale of the unlikely friendship between a working-class mechanic and a film industry windbag brought together by heart attacks. It’s a pleasant sentimental comedy, largely reliant on the players’ personalities to create the desired poignancy, which means any grating characteristics temper sympathies. With the right casting, remake potential looms large. Opening weekend in mid-April brought pic to No. 3 at the box office, taking in a modest $951,000.

Alberto (Antonio Albanese) and Angelo (Kim Rossi Stuart) find themselves in adjacent beds in the cardiac unit of a Roman hospital. Garage owner Angelo was rushed there after a heart attack, while scripter Alberto checked himself in after complaining of chest pains. Latter is a nonstop joker, covering his empty home life and inner turmoil with a gregariousness that wins over the impressionable Angelo, whose medical condition is significantly worse than Alberto’s.

Revelling in shared adolescent behavior, the two men continue to see each other despite their worlds being miles (literally) apart. Angelo’s pregnant wife Rossana (Micaela Ramazzotti, terrific) doesn’t understand why her husband is so keen to push Alberto onto the family, and she resists his increased presence in their lives. However, as Angelo’s condition deteriorates and his preoccupations increase, it’s clear to the audience he’s ensuring his family will be emotionally cared for after his death.

While the story’s bare bones are straightforward, Archibugi gives it flavor by playing with class perceptions. Angelo is a self-made man — a prole still living in a working-class district (Rome’s Pigneto) who owns several properties, including a weekend home. A loving husband and father, he’s comfortable in his own skin, unlike Alberto, who can’t sustain a relationship and doesn’t know what friendship is until Angelo comes along.

Albanese attacks Alberto’s braggadocio nature with gusto, though it’s Rossi Stuart’s quieter, deeper Angelo who attracts sympathy. However, the real standout among the cast is Ramazzotti as Angelo’s wife: As the slutty friend in “Her Whole Life Ahead of Her” she made a strong impression, but here she proves she has depth and range.

Archibugi obviously recognizes the thesp’s power. A beautifully shot sequence in which Rossana’s concern grows as she searches for her husband through home, cafe and environs works as a model on how to build a scene as well as how to hold the screen with modulated acting.

But Archibugi seems not to always trust this kind of sustained scenario: An injudicious interruption during a moment when Alberto has a heart-to-heart with Angelo’s young son, Airton (Andrea Calligari), spoils the impact. Elsewhere, the helmer shakes things up with inserted scenes, such as Alberto visiting his shrink (Adriano Apra), or having sex with his nurse (Chiara Noschese), that act as playful, quick breaks — almost like flashes of possibilities rather than reality.

Ace d.p. Fabio Zamarion (“The Unknown”) lenses these brief shots with monochromatic, saturated tones that nicely contrast with pic’s overall cooler look. A who’s-who of Italo screen personalities, from Paolo Sorrentino to Stefania Sandrelli, make brief appearances as Alberto’s industry friends visiting him in the hospital.

A Question of the Heart

Italy

Production

An 01 Distribution release of a RAI Cinema, Cattleya presentation of a Cattleya, RAI Cinema, Cinemello production. Produced by Riccardo Tozzi, Giovanni Stabilini, Marco Chimenz, Guido De Laurentiis. Executive producer, Gina Gardini. Directed, written by Francesca Archibugi, loosely based on the novel by Umberto Contarello.

Crew

Camera (color), Fabio Zamarion; editor, Patrizio Marone; music, Battista Lena; production designer, Alessandro Vannucci; costume designer, Alessandro Lai; sound (Dolby Digital), Alessandro Zanon, Simone Carnesecchi; assistant director, Elisabetta Boni; casting, Gianluca Greco. Reviewed at Cinema Quattro Fontane, Rome, April 20, 2009. Running time: 102 MIN.

With

Antonio Albanese, Kim Rossi Stuart, Micaela Ramazzotti, Francesca Inaudi, Andrea Calligari, Nelsi Xhemalaj, Chiara Noschese, Paolo Villaggio, Stefania Sandrelli, Carlo Verdone, Paolo Virzi, Paolo Sorrentino, Daniele Lucchetti, Adriano Apra.

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