Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Nov 19, 2010 12:41 am 
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Valerio Mastandrea and Stefania Sandrelli in The First Beautiful Thing

Dramas, dramas, dramas

The First Beautiful Thing is an exaggerated melodrama that focuses on Bruno (Valerio Mastandrea) a disheveled, disenchanted, drug-and-alcohol abusing literature teacher who is lured back to his native Livorno because his mother has inoperable cancer. (As played by Stefania Sandrelli, she's still remarkably vivacious, a real lover of life.) Bruno's return occasions a series of flashbacks to his childhood and young adulthood in the 1970's and 1980's. The scenes of decades earlier are so long and numerous they overwhelm the portrait of Bruno as an adult, though the present-day narrative will make a bid for attention with an operatic finale combining feel-good elements -- revelations, reunions, tears, the dying mother's wedding to an elderly admirer and her death at the wedding party. The director, Paolo Virzì, is ambitious, and here more serious than usual -- though this new film could have used some of the ironies of his earlier ones. His desire to unite with the glories of the Italian cinematic past leads him to make overt reference to Italian movies when they were great, to post-War Neo-realism, to Anna Magnani, and to Macrello Mastroianni, who starred in several of Fellini's masterpieces and still symbolizes Italy when the world looked to it for movie glamor and movie creativity. And La prima cosa bella has been taken seriously by some Italian critics desperate for signs that their cinema is coming back to life. The cinematography by Nicola Pecorini, yellow-toned for the nostalgic 1970's sequences, is excellent, as are the period costumes and sets, and there is a good cast.

Unfortunately it's hard to care deeply about any of these people, and impossible to understand Bruno's disaffection with life. As a little boy in the flashbacks (played by the excellent Giacomo Bibbiani) he is often disapproving, while his sister Valeria (young, Aurora Frasca; in 2009, Claudia Pandolfi) seems to enjoy vicariously the dubious triumphs of their young and beautiful but flighty and promiscuous mother Anna (played at this stage by Virzì's wife, Micaela Ramazzotti). Later the mature Valeria will have a chance to reprove Bruno for abandoning her as a young adult. As the little boy Bruno, Bibbiani pouts convincingly, but also looks beatific when in his mother's embrace. The young Valeria is a motor-mouthed dummy. They make a vivid pair of siblings, and their scenes give a strong sense of how much they're left to their own devices.

In the opening scene, Anna , by sheer chance, wins a local beauty contest. This makes her jealous husband Mario (Sergio Albelli) so furious that later that evening he throws her and the two children out of the house. When her judgmental sister is cruel to her, she runs from her house that same night and drags the kids through a pour-down rain to a cheap hotel. This leads to a series of liaisons, some involving the favors of a movie producer when Anna's an extra in a film featuring Mastroianni, with the children forced to wait around in makeshift accommodations. Anna's behavior is so bad, it's understandable when her husband kidnaps back the kids; but later they escape again to be with their mom. For a while the story of the kids is a strong thread, and Bruno and Valeria have some powerful moments toward the end of the film as adults. Each scene is as tumultuous and loud as the last. Those involving the older, ill Anna are meant to show that this lady, bad girl though she was, had a joie-de-vivre that was heroic. Hovering over this tale is the enormous attention Italians pay to "la mamma."

Scenes of the adult Bruno's gradual reconciliation with his dying mother continue to alternate abruptly with the tumultuous adventures of the young Anna. To say too much is happening on screen is an understatement. Ultimately it's unclear whether the movie is really about Bruno, the relations of the siblings, or the wild life their mother has led. The primary weakness of all this has to be traced to the screenplay penned by Francesco Bruni, Francesco Piccolo, and Virzì. They did not know how to subordinate parts to the whole or to bring out coherent themes. There is plenty of good acting, but what is Bruno moping about? What made him give up writing poetry and turn to drugs and alcohol? And if he is as much of a mess as he's made to appear, how come he has a decent job and faithful wife back home? Despite all the loud scenes between the young Anna and her various men, none of them provides a sense of what it might have been like to be her. The First Beautiful Thing has people, places, and emotions, but no discernible ideas. The structure is overwhelmed from the start by the overlong flashbacks, and the 1980's ones even cause confusion with their introduction of a handsome, sensitive-looking Bruno (Francesco Rapalino) whom it's hard even to connect with the pouty child and depressed adult.

Paolo Virzì, whose ninth film this is, was born like Bruno in the Tuscan seacoast town of Livorno and studied literature in his youth. With his first film, La bella vita, he won the Ciak d'Oro, the Nastro d'Argento and the David di Donatello prize for Best New Director in Italy. Now his 2010 film The First Beautiful Thing has been selected as the Italian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 83rd Academy Awards. The 122-minute film was released in Italy January 15, 2010. Seen and reviewed as part of the San Francisco Film Society's New Italian Cinema series, shown as the Closing Night film Sunday, November 21, 2010 at 6:00 and 9:15 pm at Landmark's Embarcadero Center Cinema.

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