The First Beautiful Thing has become an enormous critical and commercial success for its writer and director, Paolo Virzi. It was nominated for 18 David di Donatello Awards, of which it won for Best Screenplay Best Actress, Best Actor. It also earned prizes at other competitions, and was finally chosen to be the Italian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 83rd Academy Awards. The 48 year-old Virzi himself has already established himself as a veteran in the Italian film industy, with eight feature films since his debut in 1994, and a career in theater before that.
Thus, simply on hype and expectations alone – well, that and the associations one might have of Italy with some of the world’s greatest cinema, one could expect an extraordinary experience on par with the best of Federico Fellini or Luchino Visconti, or even a sentimentally effective piece of nostalgia like 1990′s Cinema Paradiso.
If it were only so. Like Cinema Paradiso, The First Beautiful Thing, (currently at Cine El Biógrafo) does exploit nostalgic associations of the recent past, in this case by being set in the 1970s, which was the period of Virzi’s childhood. Indeed the disco-era font for the opening credits, which are displayed over an amateur beauty contest featuring the popular polyester wear of that period, suggest that the film will be an endearing tribute to the sheer cheesiness of that time.
The good will cultivated in that moment, in which a young woman is selected by a lounge singer as the winner in a “most beautiful mother” contest, abruptly stops in the next scene, in which this same mother is physically and verbally abused by her husband, before she finally flees with her young son and daughter.
Okay, so the film is now a grim domestic drama, and we expect, perhaps, a story of this woman’s triumph over adversity. The director then takes us to the present, where we find out that the son is university professor with a serious drug habit, though not to the point of ruining his career. His sister arrives to inform him that their mother is dying of cancer in the hospital, and that the drama is about the protagonist, that is, the son, coming to terms with his inner demons.
Which is to say the sympathy one feels for the mother generated by the domestic violence scene soon fades as she proves herself to be, both in the flashback sequences, a shallow floozy who quickly resorts to using her looks to sleep with B and C-list level figures in the Italian film industry, and work as an extra in movies.
Her belligerent husband actually interrupts the filming of a movie featuring Marcello Mastrionni in order to retrieve his children, and once again the possible pathos this might provoke is mitigated by the information that she has neglected the health of her children.
In her old age, and with cancer, she does not demonstrate she has gained any maturity over the years; she spends her time absorbed in melodramatic movies and soap operas. Along the way, as communicated through Virzi’s non-linear narrative, the son passes through an adolescence occasionally difficult (he suffers the embarrassment of his mother’s reputation among his peers) and occasionally fortunate (a pretty blond trollop eagerly takes his virginity).
So what, then is The First Beautiful Thing exactly about? The protagonist’s overcoming his drug habit, his reconciliation with his sister and mother? The mother’s gaining some insight into herself or her life before her final curtain descends? A son’s coming of age? The answer seems to be, tentatively, a little of all of the above, yet not quite enough of anything. The issue of the main character’s drug addiction is presented without ever being developed, and the film does not so much conclude as stop, with not much really to say or even express on the level of feeling. To the credit of Virzi, the film is human interest story that avoids gratuitous sex and violence, and perhaps some of its nostalgic evocation of the 1970s might have provoked a mood of sentimental pathos in various Italian film juries, but for this critic at least, this simply isn’t enough.