Two women living on the outskirts of Rome struggle to make full lives for themselves in Daniele Vicari’s well-intentioned, handsomely produced “Sun, Heart, Love.” The actors are all strong, the jazz score is appealing, and the characters likeable, but the plot is so obviously scripted for the sake of making a point rather than to approximate reality (despite the film’s aim for realism), that the viewer struggles to suspend disbelief precisely when most wanting to be involved. What’s more, while the friendship between these very different women is a strong suit, the connection between them is ultimately tenuous and offers little balance, nor does it further any societal critique.
The title “Sole, cuore, amore,” which probably won’t make much sense outside Italy, references Valeria Rossi’s 2001 pop hit “Tre parole,” and while it gives the impression that the film is all hearts and flowers, instead this is one of those movies where fate’s inexorable downward pull leaves its characters considerably less happy than they were at the start. For Vicari, conveying a sense of being trapped by life’s complications is a means of highlighting the crushing daily grind that eats people up and tosses them aside, and yet, despite audience identification, there are too many elements here that just don’t hold water.
Early scenes have a certain New York/Woody Allen vibe, largely thanks to metro sequences and Stefano di Battista’s enjoyable free-form jazz score that feels born from urban hubbub. Eli (Isabella Ragonese, one of the most welcome presences in contemporary Italian cinema) works long hours behind the counter at a café in Rome, where her unfailingly cheery disposition helps make it a regular stopping point for locals. Sourpuss owner Nicola (Francesco Acquaroli) knows she’s an asset to his business but won’t cut her any slack, despite the fact it takes her two hours to get to work every day. The long commute is because she, husband Mario (Francesco Montanari), and their four kids live by the sea in Torvaianica, about 25 miles from the city, with no direct mass transit. So Eli sets her alarm for 4:30 a.m., takes a bus and then the metro into the city to arrive in time for the morning rush. For six and a half days, she goes through the same routine, getting home around 10 p.m., with barely any face time with her family.
Since Mario is an out-of-work contractor, at least he spends some time with the kids, though it would be a lot better if he were earning a regular paycheck. While it’s true that tens of thousands of people in the world endure long daily commutes to bring home the bacon, in actuality, Eli’s exhausting journey — which takes up some of the most engrossing, well-shot screen time — feels designed to function more as a preconceived plot point rather than a truly inescapable situation. Eli will take any job, be it barista or supermarket cashier, so it’s rather hard to believe she can’t find employment closer to home.
Usually just when Eli leaves in the morning, her neighbor Vale (Eva Grieco) comes home from nightclubs or “happenings” where she works as a dancer. Though she studied physics, Vale chose to go in for modern dance, much to the bewilderment of her mother Adele (Paola Tiziana Cruciani), the latter eviscerated in a dinner scene that feels jarringly out of place with the rest of the film. Several things seem odd here: Vale isn’t exactly the type to be living in Torvaianica, and does she really get enough work doing interpretive performances in Roman discos? A lesbian who appears not completely at ease with her sexuality, Vale’s equilibrium is thrown off-balance when she takes in colleague Bianca (Giulia Anchisi) after a beating by boyfriend Sergio (Giordano De Plano), and has to deal with her attraction.
The sisterly affection between Eli and Vale is one of the film’s strong suits, helping somewhat to connect the two stories which otherwise have little to bind them together. Vicari (“Diaz — Don’t Clean Up This Blood”) also does a nice job fleshing out the relationship between Eli and Mario, which despite considerable tensions manages to remain loving and supportive. Much credit must go to Ragonese, who imbues Eli with irresistible warmth and good humor. Grieco, a dancer making her movie debut, is also strong.
Editing back and forth between the two women is meant to underline a parallel nature which isn’t there in the script, and mostly reveals the strength of Eli’s story over Vale’s. Far better is the way Vicari captures the daily slog of commuting, from the sleep-deprived people in the bus before sunrise to Eli’s exhausted fellow strap-hangers, catching a few winks whenever a seat is available.