Italians sure do love to make sprawling tributes to their mothers and fathers! In fact, Italians filmmakers seem to have a lot of unresolved issues with their parents. Everyone from Fellini to Tornatore is devoted to depicting their troubled relationships with the parental units on screen. Even Roberto Benigni played a version of his father in Life is Beautiful. Several years later, the 50-year-old cast himself as the little boy puppet in a live-action version of Pinocchio. What I’m trying to say, is that sometimes these paternal and maternal issues result in masterpieces, and other times they lead to weird vanity projects in which Roberto Benigni and a juvenile delinquent simultaneously lick a lollipop.
Paolo Virzi’s The First Beautiful Thing is no masterpiece, but it’s a heartwarming, truthful and damn funny family film. It follows a brother and sister who reunite to take care of their dying mum, and offers us glimpses at their tumultuous relationship while growing up. But before terrifying memories of the Julia Roberts/Susan Sarandon sobfest Stepmom come screaming back, let me assure you that The First Beautiful Thing is no maudlin affair. It skillfully avoids that which derails so many other Italian dramedies – saccharine schmaltz – yet still manages an emotional, and yes, perhaps even tear-inducing ending.
The effervescent Micaela Ramazzotti stars as the saucy young matriarch of a very fractured family. Having run away from her abusive husband with her young son and daughter in tow, we witness the various trials the trio undertake to stay together, as well as the painful awkwardness of being a teenager with a very hands-on mother. Valerio Mastandrea and Claudia Pandolfi star as the adult children; their lives have taken a different path than they had hoped, and they place the blame squarely on their voracious and voluptuous mother (Stefania Sandrelli, in the later years). But still, riddled with the kind of Italian guilt a Sicilian boy like myself knows well from experience, they sit by their mother’s bedside and, unexpectedly, begin to see things from her perspective.
The First Beautiful Thing is a nice little ensemble comedy. Although the central mother figure comes across as a manic-pixie-dream-mum, Virzi offers her enough flaws to keep her grounded in reality. The same goes for the entire cast. I have to assume it’s somewhat based on his own life, considering the amount of emotional truth here. But Italians need not worry – when it comes to issues with their parents, the Greeks still hold the title for being the most messed up. I mean, did you hear about what happened to that Oedipus kid?