The First Beautiful Thing -- Film Review

Virzi has hit his stride in this polished but delicate comedy-drama.

ROME — "The First Beautiful Thing," Paolo Virzi’s carefully drawn portrait of a 40-something, misanthropic high school teacher forced to visit his estranged mother’s deathbed, spans four decades of a troubled family with enough gentle pathos and sly humor to compensate for a less than original storyline.

Forgoing the flashy sentimentality of, say, a Guiseppe Tornatore film, The First Beautiful Thing is a highly polished crowd-pleaser featuring great performances all around, especially from stars Valerio Mastandrea, Micaela Ramazzotti and Stefania Sandrelli.

Wild Bunch has sold Italy’s submission for Oscar foreign-language consideration around the world, including to North American distributor Palisades Tartan, which will release the film in 2011.

The film opens in 1971 with a cheesy beauty pageant for mothers at a summer fair. Effervescent Anna (Ramazzotti, Virzi’s real-life wife) wins hands down as her jealous husband, young daughter and son look on. Little brooding Bruno is afraid of the wrath his mother’s victory will spark in his father, and rightfully so.

The story then flashes forward to today. Bruno (played as an adult by Mastandrea) is stoned out of his mind in a park and has forgotten his own birthday dinner and his girlfriend Sandra (Fabrizia Sacchi). Soon thereafter, Bruno’s sister Valeria (Claudia Pandolfi) virtually kidnaps him to visit their mother (played in the present by Sandrelli) who is dying of cancer in a hospice. The film jumps back and forth between Bruno’s childhood and the present day, as we come to understand what made the emotionally hermetic Bruno abandon his family.

Virzi never undermines the drama, but he tightly washes over even the most potentially gushy moments with delicate sarcasm as Bruno takes baby steps toward making peace with his mother. The actors have an easy, intimate rapport with one another. Mastandrea and Pandolfi are both strong, as are the actors playing their younger counterparts, Giacomo Bibbiani and Aurora Frasca.

Ramazzotti has a gift for portraying vulnerable, flighty women who exude sexuality, like Sandrelli in her heyday. In this film, she is perfect as the small-town knockout who can’t help but use her beauty even though she’s abused for it. Sandrelli also avoids caricature and is full of life even as it slips away from her character.

The title refers to a popular 1970 Italian song that Anna sings to her children, often as a distraction in times of family troubles. It also describes Bruno’s first and probably only great love — for a mother he couldn’t protect from her own carnal impulses. Clearly, he has inherited her instability, much to his frustration, but not her joie de vivre.

Cinematographer Nicola Pecorini uses warm, orange-sepia colors for the past, while his numerous wide-angle shots lend an off-kilter tone, nicely driving home the idea that the family members live in their own slightly separate world. Production designer Tonino Zera’s re-creation of the 1970s is spot on, and the original music by the director’s brother, Carlo Virzi, is evocative and playful.

Production companies: Medusa, Motorino Amaranto, Indiana
Cast: Valerio Mastandrea, Micaela Ramazzotti, Stefania Sandrelli, Claudia Pandolfi, Marco Messeri, Giacomo Bibbiani, Aurora Frasca, Fabrizia Sacchi, Isabella Cecchi
Director: Paolo Virzi
Screenwriters: Francesco Bruni, Francesco Piccolo, Paolo Virzi
Producers: Fabrizio Donvito, Marco Cohen, Benedetto Habib
Director of photography: Nicola Pecorini
Production designer: Tonino Zera
Music: Carlo Virzi
Costume designer: Gabriella Pescucci
Editor: Simone Manetti
Sales: Wild Bunch
No rating, 119 minutes