One Kiss (Un bacio)
Italy (2016) Dir. Ivan Cotroneo
Being different means you are always going to find it hard to find in with conventional society, especially school. So, perhaps the best way to beat the bullies and those who ostracise you is to embrace your individuality to the hilt? This is the MO of the protagonists in this Italian coming-of-age comedy drama which takes a tragic turn after the titular smooch.
Lorenzo (Rimau Grillo Ritzberger) is an openly gay teen boy recently arriving in a small town after being adopted from an orphanage in Turin. His flamboyant personality doesn’t endear him to his classmates at his new school, except for Blu (Valentina Romani), a smart feisty girl, harassed for her sexual exploits. Also in his class is quiet basketball player Antonio (Leonardo Pazzagli), still grieving the loss of his brother.
As outsiders, things can get lonely for them but Lorenzo’s arrival and his nonchalant attitude towards his haters provides a spark for Blu and Antonio to learn to live with themselves and ignore the others, enjoying their exclusive friendship as a trio. But as ever, romantic feelings threaten to ruin this, as Antonio as in love with Blu whilst Lorenzo has his eyes on Antonio.
This development doesn’t actually occur until late in the film with the pivotal kiss taking place inside the last ten minutes. A slight spoiler perhaps but important to know in case you are watching this wondering if the title is misleading. Ivan Cotroneo, in his second feature film, follows a rather unusual path in telling this anti-homophobic, anti-bullying story so expect the unexpected.
Cotroneo takes a leaf out Lorenzo’s book and confronts his topic head on, initially a bold move when he rocks up at school in a Hawaiian shirt and dances his way into the building. In his head he is receiving a standing ovation; in reality he is jeered and called a “Faggot”, which he takes in his stride. His relentless joie de vivre even makes the glum Blu perk up and a new friendship is formed, bonding over being outcast by the others.
With humour being Lorenzo’s main weapon against the cat calls and offensive graffiti, the tone of the film is upbeat and light hearted despite the subject matter, and Cotroneo unleashes his inner Michel Gondry with a display of animated frippery to accompany Lorenzo’s arrival at school and his withering put downs on the Internet.
This tongue-in-cheek approach extends to a fun dance routine set to Blondie’s Sunday Girl with Lorenzo and Blu dressed in Blu’s parent’s 80’s clothes, aping US teen comedies of the era with mischievous precision. Later in the film, a fashion parade in a retro clothes shop accompanied by a Lady Gaga track parodies every other quick cut change-of-wardrobe movie scene with similar affection.
Antonio is considered thick by the others because of his introversion and the fact he is living in the shadow of his late and more talented older brother Massimo who appears as a ghost to egg Antonio on. In joining Blu and Lorenzo Antonio comes out of his shell and the trio engage in harmless escapades similar to Jules et Jim and Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, sans the sexual frisson.
However things turn sour when Lorenzo thinks Antonio is on the same wavelength as him but instead receives a swift rejection, bolstered by Antonio’s admission of love for Blu, who already has a boyfriend Gio. Due to return from college, it was sleeping with Gio and three of his friends at the same time that earned Blu her reputation, which she plays up to, but as ever the truth will out.
From this point on the film stops being fun and the tone is very serious as the three friends are trapped in a vicious circle of being unable to communicate with each other and reconcile their own feelings. They go from being victims of other people’s prejudice to victims of their own emotional inadequacies and failure to face up to the truth.
It is sad watching this joyous trio head down such a tragic path, but Cotroneo’s intent to shock us into recognising the issue at hand and the plight of the victims, makes this sharp tonal shift just another tact in ensuring he has our attention. By exploring the problem of bullying and homophobia, Cotroneo is asking us to be aware that being honest with ourselves is halfway to solving our issues.
One of the strengths of this film is the characters. Lorenzo is a refreshing representative of the gay community, confident in himself and turning the problem onto his haters, aided by the unwavering support of his progressive adopted parents (Thomas Trabacchi and Susy Laude). At no point does Lorenzo play the victim, using his guile and creative flair to fight back with gusto.
Antonio suffers because his mother (Laura Mazzi) is smothering him while his father (Sergio Romano) is trying to turn him into a man like his brother, when all he wants to do is play basketball. Blu is a tough girl who ignores the gossip and whispers of her classmates, but her fight is with her mother (Simonetta Solder), a struggling writer trying to get published but instead her blog, based on Blu’s life, is a hit.
The three main actors deliver assured and accomplished performances for newcomers, despite looking way older than their characters’ 15 years of age. Rimau Grillo Ritzberger, in his debut, makes Lorenzo effervescent without the clichéd campiness, a stark contrast to Leonardo Pazzagli’s awkward but sensitive Antonio. Valentina Romani has a vibrancy about her making Blu an engaging character that avoids being the token eye candy role.
Had One Kiss been able to boast a better ratio of 90% build up and 10% climax it might have been able to resolve some lingering issues the end leaves open. Cotroneo’s film does contain engaging characters, snappy writing and enough brazen clout to make its point, and more importantly, make us think.