Alice (Paola Cortellesi) is a housewife in a posh part of Rome and a mother to nine-year-old Filippo (Giovanni Bruno) enjoying a luxurious home and lifestyle. When her husband dies in a car accident she is left with a massive debt and the risk of losing her son. Desperately in need of cash, and with no skills, Alice turns to the oldest profession in the world: prostitution. 

Hooker comedy sells itself short.

ITALIAN FILM FESTIVAL: This reviewer had a sinking feeling within the opening minutes of this gaudy Italian comedy about a newly widowed woman who turns to hooking to pay her husband’s debts. Overly caricatured dramatis personae? Tick. Raucous gags and a plot with the subtlety of a wharfie’s armpit? You’re getting the picture. Cheesiness is the order of the day, and we’re not talking about a nice taleggio.

Yet as I watched in horror, a certain fascination started to creep in. For all its vulgarity, Escort in Love starts to betray some genuinely interesting aspects, namely its satirical barbs at the expense of bigotry in Berlusconi’s Italy, and a wisely pragmatic line on its heroine’s choice of new profession.

Paola Cortellesi’s Alice starts the film promising to be an insufferable protagonist, a pampered member of the bourgeoisie with nothing better to do than whine about her lazy, migrant labour domestic staff. That is until her husband carks it in a road accident. After meeting with the family lawyer, Alice discovers just how deeply in debt her other half has been, and if she doesn’t pay up, she’s headed for gaol and her son will have no-one to raise him.

Having swapped her palatial home for a rough concrete room atop a block of flats in the working class Roman suburbs, she rings a glamorous escort she’d previously met at one of her glitzy garden parties, heads to the woman’s penthouse apartment overlooking the Colosseum and decides to give prostitution a shot under the woman’s employ.

Alice gets cold feet on the verge of her first appointment, but going back a second time she finds it’s not so hard after all. The comedy extracted from Alice’s professional sessions is silly rather than amusing – a customer who gets his jollies from dressing up in superhero costumes, and another who adores being smacked? Oh please, there’s usually more sophisticated – and funny – undergraduate humour in the Tropfest short film event’s reject pile.

For all that, the film is slickly directed and Cortellesi’s amiably upbeat lead performance shines amid even the most groan-worthy of its gags. (It won her the best actress prize in this year’s David di Donatello Awards.)

The film’s social commentary is mostly played out around an internet café opposite Alice’s new digs, staffed mainly by migrants. Characters entering the frame include the business’s owner-manager (played by Italian hunk-for-hire Raoul Bova), who quickly becomes Alice’s nice-guy love interest, and a male employee forever ambushed by a reality TV crew trying to bully him into taking back his hysterical ex. Then there’s her building’s janitor, a bigot who continually spews his prejudiced views against migrants.

There is a morality tale being played out here, but it’s less about prostitution than prejudice and vulgarity in contemporary Italian life. While Alice gets no kicks from her hooking – she’s no Belle de Jour – her job is portrayed as a necessary evil for some women and nothing for which its practitioners should apologise. I liked a nice, albeit brief, sight gag satirising Alice’s fear of the Catholic Church’s disapproval of the world’s oldest profession. It underlines the film’s message that conventional Italian morality has nothing to offer contemporary women.

That’s not to deny the film lacks a moral position, though. It’s just that its concern with right and wrong is rooted in small 'l’ liberal values by which indigenous Italians should learn to respect people of different backgrounds, especially when they’ve arrived from overseas. It’s hard to have any objection to that as an idea. Less easy to accept is the trite liberal fantasy the filmmakers erect as their grand finale.