The First Beautiful Thing is an Italian film which can be characterized in a few different ways but it’s mainly a biopic without the celebrity and a character study without the self-indulgence. It concerns Bruno (Valerio Mastrandrea) who returns home to see his estranged family as his mother is terminally ill in the hospital.
The first interesting thing about this film is that it tells simultaneous tales in a fractured narrative, which unapologetically, artistically flows back and froth in time unannounced. Thus, we first meet Bruno and his sister Valeria when they are quite young and their mother is being awarded “Prettiest Mom” at a beauty pageant at random. This scene is mirrored beautifully at the climax and we truly see why it was so crucial to have that scene be first. Bruno and his mother saw that event in very different ways; Bruno’s view being similar to his father and to an extent it shaped both him and his relationship with his mother.
This film doesn’t put on any airs when dealing with intra-familial relationships and shows them for what they are. Cultural attitudes, the estrangement and the scenario allow them to be more open than they might be otherwise but there’s still a lot of imperfection, unconditional love and silent forgiveness shown throughout. This is a film that could very easily go into over-the-top melodrama but it is beautifully restrained throughout and slowly lets go of the reins allowing for a catharsis only at the end of the film.
This film is littered with very good performances. Ultimately, it’s the kind of film wherein it would get tedious to cite them all when there are many other facets of them film also worthy of attention. However, consider this each of the three main characters have more than one actor playing them. The children have 3 stages: child, teen and adult and there’s a young version of the mother and an elderly one. All of of them are quite strong an each is playing one character in such a way that we can see the trajectory of their life. Bruno, for example, is now professor, afraid of committing, hooked on drugs, stone-faced and wary of seeing his family anew. The actors playing Bruno in earlier moments chronologically have to make this interpretation acceptable and possible and they do.
The film plays out as a tragicomic one as there are certainly moments of genuine laughter and joy and moments that can and likely will bring tears to your eyes. It strikes a delicate balance of poking fun at truths we know about family life and also knowing what draws us in and brings us back home no matter how prodigal we may be.
Similarly coming off an absolutely absorbing and wrenching climax you get a quietly resolute denouement that ends the film on just the perfect uplifting note after the expected occurred.
The First Beautiful Thing, as intimated above, is accomplished technical film. The edit works quite well aesthetically and technically to blend time. The cinematography is often lush and places us in the right perspective to properly absorb the emotion of a scene (whether in overhead, creative over-the-shoulder or wide). The score and occasional use of source music, especially the songs the kids sing with their mother, is spot on.
This is one of the best films I’ve seen to date this year. It’s the kind of film you feel as if you experience not merely watched. It’s engaging on all levels.