Thursday, April 14, 2011

Italian Sentimentalism: The First Beautiful Thing

Bruno Michelucci is a miserable louse and it is all due to his mother’s sex appeal. Obviously, this is just his excuse for underachieving. Still, there is no denying her scandalous private life leads to no end of complications in Paolo Virzì’s The First Beautiful Thing (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Like Blanche Dubois, Anna Nigiotti Michelucci heavily relied on the kindness of strangers. After walking out on her husband Marco in suitably dramatic fashion, Nigiotti Michelucci and her son and daughter are constantly on the move, crashing in guest houses and basement hideaways provided by her many admirers amongst Livorno’s adult male population. Of course, gossip is vicious in the small provincial town. Her daughter Valeria is too young to appreciate the malicious whispers, but not Bruno.

Thirty-some years later, Bruno is a basket case, recklessly self-medicating and trying his darnedest to alienate everyone around him. Though he has avoided all contact with his family, his sister strong-arms him into paying one last visit to their dying mother. The same relentlessly upbeat optimist, she has thoroughly charmed the staff of her hospice. She still appears healthy, but time is evidently short. Yet even at this late date, Bruno has difficulty coming to terms with her, as he ruminates over all the embarrassing incidents from his childhood (seen in flashbacks) that made him the man he is today.

Fittingly, Nigiotti Michelucci is a true fan of Sophia Loren. Indeed, she seems to have modeled her life after one of the screen icon’s more passionate films, living large, with equal measures of innocence and worldliness. At times, this is somewhat charming in the spirit of La Dolce Vita. However, after a certain point, one has to wince at scenes Bruno witnesses in sullen silence.

Virzì handles the constant temporal shifts rather adeptly. He also evokes a groovy nostalgia for the early 1970’s, particularly through his use of saccharine pop tunes of the era, such as the one that lent the film its title. Yet, Nigiotti Michelucci’s persistent inability or unwillingness to create a more stable environment for children eventually wears on the film’s credibility.

As Bruno pushing middle-age, Valerio Mastandrea looks and acts like a complete loser. In contrast, Micaela Ramazzotti s 1970’s Nigiotti Michelucci has a genuinely vivacious screen presence. Indeed, she could have stepped out of the free-spirited Italian films of years gone by. However, perhaps the most intriguing turn comes from Claudia Pandolfi as grown-up sister Valeria, the baby of the family forced to act as the adult, by default.

Thing is hardly shy about its melodrama, dropping just about every soap opera revelation imaginable on viewers in its two-hours and a smidge running time. While it is executed with laudable zest, it never reaches the heights of Luca Guadagnino’s I am Love, which Thing somewhat controversially beat out as Italy’s official best foreign language contender at this year’s Oscars. Still, it is all rather engaging in an oh-so Italian way. Nice and sentimental, Thing opens tomorrow (4/15) in New York at the Angelika Film Center.