Title: The First Beautiful Thing
Director: Paolo Virzi
Starring: Micaela Ramazzotti, Valerio Mastandrea, Claudia Pandolfi, Sergio Albelli, Fabrizia Sacchi
A major box office player in its native Italy, and the country’s official 2011 selection for Best Foreign Film Academy Award consideration, ‘The First Beautiful Thing’ (also known as ‘La Prima Cosa Bella’) is a movie that’s both heartrending and heartwarming, and never falsely so. Fabulously staged and rapturously acted, it’s an honest and perceptive tale of adult reconciliation — of coming to the recognition that one’s parents are actually people too, and loving them with their faults and shortcomings, all the same.
The story opens in 1971, at a small town fair, where Anna Michelucci (Micaela Ramazzotti), out with her family, is thrust onto the stage and ends up winning a “Young Mothers” pageant. This enthralls her daughter, embarasses her son and eventually irritates her possessive husband Mario (Sergio Albelli), a drunken lout who keeps her under his thumb. Anna eventually makes the decision to leave Mario. The rest of the film cuts back and forth between the peripatetic life of Anna and her kids (at one point they’re kidnapped back by Mario, and then rescued again in the dark of night by Anna and an accomplice) and them as grown-ups, as Anna lies terminally ill, and likely ready to pass away.
As an adult, Bruno (Valerio Mastandrea) is an irritable, junkie vocational school teacher who long ago gave up on his secret passion, poetry, and can’t appreciate his long-suffering girlfriend, Sandra (Fabrizia Sacchi). His sister Valeria (Claudia Pandolfi) is stuck in an unhappy marriage, and full of barely concealed resentments toward her older brother’s isolation. When she finally succeeds in dragging him to see their mother at the hospital, he pulls aside a doctor to try to hit him up for prescriptions. As Bruno and Valeria each spend some time with Anna, however — and Bruno in particular comes to terms with the difficulty of looking at his mother as a sexual creature — the many shared difficulties of their childhoods take on a greater contextual resonance.
Scripted by director Paolo Virzi, Francesco Bruni and Francesco Piccolo, The First Beautiful Thing captures with striking clarity the pain and trauma of kids caught up in a brutal tug-of-war between two parents. The child actors playing the young Bruno and Valeria are quite good, but more than that Virzi also has a smart sense of how to use them, and delineate small differences in reaction to their mother’s dalliances with new men, or her work as an extra on a Marcello Mastroianni movie. The differences fit together, hand in glove, with the adult personalities of Pandolfi’s Valeria and Mastandrea’s Bruno — their standoffishness and feelings of unease with the world at large, respectively.
The film’s smart and deft dance, its balance of heartbreak and uplift, flags a bit in its final third, with the introduction of a plot point involving a possible third sibling, put up for adoption. Virzi never comes up with a truly convincing way to integrate this strand, and consequently it feels like an element of such underscored, tangible separation and difference as to serve only as a device to foist some emotional finality upon Bruno and Valeria. That it doesn’t entirely work is definite, but doubly so for American audiences, who may find the situational embrace of certain characters head-scratching if not outright whiplash-inducing.
All that said, Virzi’s film is a warm and welcome foreign film treat, lovingly staged by the director, and gorgeously costumed by Gabriella Pescucci. Cinematographer Tonino Zera’s work is also superlative, utilizing the warm Italian sun to bathe early childhood sequences in a counterbalancing optimism decidedly at odds with the movie’s later visual presentation and color palette. The First Beautiful Thing reminds us that our struggles — however weighty and very much our own — are not the first of their sort in all of human history, and they might even amount to much less than we would have had if not for actions of our parents and loved ones, no matter their screw-ups.
Written by: Brent Simon