(La prima cosa bella) Italy’s 2010 submission for Best Foreign Language Film, Paolo Virzi’s “The First Beautiful Thing” is a flashback-driven memory film about a son’s fraught relationship to his mother, both as a child and as a grown-up teacher and failed poet embarking on a middle age filled with “the empty space, the sadness.” The dying version of Anna, played by Stefania Sandrelli (“The Conformist”), is as hearty as she was as the younger woman who embarrassed him when he was but a sullen lad. (The younger version of Mamma is played by Virzi’s wife, Micaela Ramazzotti.) Reportedly semi-autobiographical, Virzi approaches his “Terms of Endearment”-style story al dente: he bites into it with gusto. “The First Beautiful Thing” feels like a genuine crowd-pleaser, the scenic sort of full-bodied sentimental melodrama Italy’s filmmakers can make seem effortless. How many picturesque melodramas like this loving anecdote is the Italian industry turning out now? An often-great national cinema still gives actors a chance to shine in poignant family dramas, and filmmakers still take chances with how to decipher the past. With Valerio Mastandrea. 122m. 35mm. (Ray Pride)
“The First Beautiful Thing” opens Friday at Siskel. The trailer is below.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published later this year.