A tidy Italian melodrama about a sullen son and his ebullient mother, The First Beautiful Thing takes its name from a '70s pop song and seems geared to suit a similarly pop audience. With a fine cast and professional production values, this simple story of a long-suffering but life-loving mother and the trouble she goes through for her kids is touching and accessible, but also swimming in the charming cultural detail that make it uniquely Italian. If Palisades Tartan does proactive marketing for this film it could do quite well, it's the sort of crowd-pleaser that more would attend if it didn't have subtitles. Creative marketing will make all the difference.
Anna (Micaela Ramazzotti) is a beautiful woman, a fact that brings her no pleasure. Jealous townsfolk presume she's a whore and men support any such claim by bragging they've had her. Fortunately, her innocence shields her from rumors. Her husband Mario (Sergio Albelli) is terribly aware of the callous words of the townsfolk and gives them too much value. When she wins the 1971 "Summer Momma" pageant at a local event, it's cause for shame. The poor woman doesn't even get a moment to absorb the flattery; the award will result in a fight at home. Her daughter is as bright-eyed as she is, but her son follows in his father's grumpy, territorial footsteps. When Mario kicks Anna out of the house she takes the kids with her, and she spends their upbringing struggling from one job to the next, all of which are given to her by men who love her—though she maintains her fidelity to Mario. In present day, mom (now played by Stefania Sandrelli) has survived 10 rounds of chemo and is waiting to die. Even hospice provides her admirers to gently reject. Bruno (Valerio Mastandrea), in his age, has become an Italian teacher, and he fills "the empty space, the sadness" with drugs the film only vaguely identifies. He's selfish and grim and his leaden demeanor makes him a burden to the women who (for reasons unknown) love him. We enter the film through Bruno, the dour cynic, who ultimately paves the way for his mother to experience a resolved death, surrounded by those who loved her.
It's a simple story but precisely the sort that we all benefit from revisiting. Since the point is universality, complaining about genre or cliché is pretty silly. Director Paolo Virzì does a beautiful job creating images that are uniquely postcard-like and affecting. The actors do a fine job adding nuance to characters who could have been mere caricatures, and the matrimonial ending, which could have gone into many troubling directions, ultimately lays the entire saga sweetly to bed. Italian audiences are bound to like it and the broadness of plot and appeal suggests casual fans of foreign film should, too.
Cast: Valerio Mastandrea, Micaela Ramazzotti, Stefania Sandrelli and Claudia Pandolfi
Director: Paolo Virzi
Screenwriters: Paolo Virzì, Francesco Bruni and Francesco Piccolo
Producer: Paolo Virzì, Gabriele Muccino, Marco Cohen, Fabrizio Donvito and Carlo Virzì
Genre: Family Drama; Italian-language, subtitled
Running time: 122 min.
Release date: April 15 NY