Flashbacks overwhelm the structure of “The First Beautiful Thing,” a consciously sentimental look at a misanthropic son returning to his hometown to say goodbye to his dying but still-exuberant mother. Unlike his superior “Her Whole Life Ahead of Her,” helmer/co-scripter Paolo Virzi forgoes any satirical bite and sticks with a nostalgic formula that will play equally well on big or small screens. Occasionally affecting but unremarkable, the pic’s emotional moments are designed to pluck local heartstrings, portending healthy returns on home turf. Offshore takers are likely to be mostly Italo-centric fests.
In 1971, at a popular beach establishment near the Tuscan port of Livorno, young mom Anna (Micaela Ramazzotti) is roped into a beauty contest, which she easily wins. Her jealous husband, Mario (Sergio Albelli), is enraged by the attention from assorted wolf-whistlers, while 8-year-old son Bruno (Giacomo Bibbiani), is horrified by the spectacle of it all. His younger sis, Valeria (Giulia Burgalassi), is the only one enjoying the scene.
Jump to the present, when Bruno (Valerio Mastandrea) gets an urgent visit from Valeria (Claudia Pandolfi) telling him their mom (Stefania Sandrelli) has cancer. Bruno tries to wriggle out of going back to Livorno but finally agrees, and the sight of his mother asleep in her hospice bed triggers bittersweet memories.
The night of the beauty contest, Anna and Mario had a heated argument that led to her departure with the kids. In the ensuing months, the three moved to various makeshift accommodations supplied by an assortment of lovers, with Anna trying her best to give the children a semi-normal life. Back in the present, Bruno starts to understand his fulsomely demonstrative mother, making peace with her past and his own.
This is pretty standard stuff, coasting on the ineluctable Italian worship of “la mamma.” The script never supplies a satisfactory explanation for Bruno’s misanthropy, and Mastandrea ends up playing yet another tired-eyed, unshaven, emotionally half-formed slacker. He does it well, but deserves a chance to expand his repertoire.
As the younger Anna, Ramazzotti is best in the quicksilver transitions between fighting with Mario and distracting the kids with songs; Sandrelli is less challenged as the older Anna, full of life and yet dying in classic meller form.
The movie is hamstrung by flashbacks running so long that the present-day narrative is practically forgotten. Scenes set in 1981 could easily be eliminated, as they add little to Bruno’s psychological profile.
Lensing by Virzi’s regular d.p., Nicola Pecorini (who also shot “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus”), is solid, with 1971 scenes signaled by yellowy tones that evocatively pick up on the excellent period detail.