Paolo Virzi’s bittersweet comedy “Kisses and Hugs” sticks close to the setting, tone and ensemble structure of his 1997 hit and Venice Grand Jury Prize-winner “Ovosodo” (Hard-Boiled Eggs), and again benefits from the freshness and spontaneity of a mainly inexperienced cast. While the new pic is less consistent and slower to engage, its emotional rewards arguably are richer; key fest exposure could help lever this warm-hearted film into select arthouses.
Set in and around Tuscan industrial town Livorno during the Christmas season, the story hinges on the collision between two unfortunate destinies. On one side is a trio of former factory workers led by Renato (Massimo Gambacciani). Victims of retrenchment, they borrow money to set up an ostrich farm outside of town, betting on an improbable boom in the market for ostrich meat.
On the other side is impassioned restaurateur Mario (Francesco Paolantoni), whose business and marriage have gone bust, driving him to attempt suicide.
Desperate to secure state financing to bolster their floundering ostrich business, Renato sees his sister’s romantic attachment to a regional government councilor — also named Mario — as the key. He invests everything in food, wine and gifts for a lavish Christmas get-together at which the councilor is expected, but due to a mix-up at the train station, Renato takes home the wrong Mario. Doped-up on sleeping pills and exhaust fumes, Mario the restaurateur is unable to correct the mistake.
The setting-up of the prolonged misunderstanding that throws desolate Mario into the warm embrace of the sprawling family is a little belabored. But once the mechanisms are in place, Virzi and regular co-scripter Francesco Bruni’s story takes wing, steadily acquiring unexpected reserves of tenderness and charm as Mario responds to the clan’s kindness and then resourcefully steps in to lift distraught Renato’s spirits when the misunderstanding is revealed.
Especially notable are Gambacciani as Renato and Isabella Cecchi as his secretary — a plumply pretty, clueless country girl who’s been waiting in vain for her boss to leave his wife for her. The touching, timid development of an attraction between her and Mario is beautifully orchestrated. One of only two seasoned actors in the cast, TV comic Paolantoni makes a strong impression in his first film role.
The rustic colors of the old farmhouse and muddy countryside are smoothly shot in widescreen by d.p. Alessandro Pesci. Jacopo Quadri’s agile editing also is an asset, as is the jaunty, Gypsy-esque music of Snaporaz, a Livorno band whose members appear in the film.