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Movie Review

The First Beautiful Thing

The mother of Italian melodramas: Emotional give and take in Oscar entry

Stefania Sandrelli plays a free-spirited beauty who has terminal cancer in “The First Beautiful Thing.' Stefania Sandrelli plays a free-spirited beauty who has terminal cancer in “The First Beautiful Thing." (Palisades/Tartan)
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / June 10, 2011

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"The First Beautiful Thing’’ was Italy’s 2011 entry for the best foreign language Academy Award, a fact that says more about Italy than the Oscars. A smart, enjoyably sudsy multi-decade melodrama, the film encompasses noble mothers, unappreciative sons, adorable children poorly treated, teenagers and sex, long-lost siblings, straying wives, terminal illness, parental sacrifice, and, above all, a ripe, tragicomic vein of maternal guilt. No wonder the movie won so many awards in its home country. It’s practically a blueprint for the national psyche.

For insurance, there’s a legend in twilight: Stefania Sandrelli, once the moody bombshell muse of Pietro Germi (1964’s “Seduced and Abandoned’’) and Bernardo Bertolucci (1970’s “The Conformist’’), and now a frisky 69-year-old life force. She plays Anna Michelucchi, dying of cancer but not going down without a good laugh at fate. Anna’s the kind of terminal patient — and “The First Beautiful Thing’’ is the kind of movie — that escapes the sick room to cavort at carnivals and eat cotton candy until the inevitable relapse.

But Paolo Virzì’s movie is less about her and more about the Anna who lives in the mind and memories of her son, Bruno, played in childhood by Giacomo Bibbiani, in adolescence by Francesco Rapalino, and as an adult by Valerio Mastandrea. He’s a serial grouch in all phases, and you can’t really blame him, since the young Anna (Micaela Ramazzotti) is a dazzling, at times exhausting free spirit who invites condemnation from the hypocrites in their hometown of Livorno even as she’s devoting her life to little Bruno and his sister Valeria (Aurora Frasca).

The early-1970s scenes are filmed through a nostalgic amber but they’re also vaguely terrifying, as Anna’s husband (the pickle-faced Sergio Albelli) kicks her out and she drags the kids from one tenuous situation to the next, at times one step up from the streets. She’s a hot mama who depends on the kindness of strangers but not for the quid pro quos that most people, including her son, assume.

If Anna is a mystery to a child, she’s a mortal embarrassment to a teenager. Around this time, the script by Virzì, Francesco Bruni, and Francesco Piccolo goes into melodramatic overdrive, and there’s one development in particular that wouldn’t be out of place in a 1930s Barbara Stanwyck movie. (If I said which one, you’d guess the twist.) The stage is set for a modern-day climax of relentless reconciliation; there’s also more than a bit of “Terms of Endearment’’ in this mix.

In other words, “The First Beautiful Thing’’ is shameless, and, damn it, I cried anyway. Sandrelli knows how to bank Anna’s effusiveness for maximum emotional impact, and Mastandrea’s dourness as the grown-up Bruno is funny and moving. (The son’s a recovering addict, and there are some wry laughs at his consistently foiled attempts to score something — anything — to take the edge off coming home to Mama.) The director goes too heavy on the use of wide-angle lenses but only because you sense he’s trying to cram it all in: past, present, future, the spreading generations of family, the different selves we know or think we know.

What’s eating Bruno Michelucchi? Because it’s never clear, we never buy his change of heart; that’s the chief failing of Virzì’s film. On the other hand, the dissatisfactions driving his grown sister become powerfully and unexpectedly clear in a scene toward the end, and only then do you realize what a strong, sympathetic performance Claudia Pandolfi has been giving. The message of “The First Beautiful Thing’’ is that we’re all a little imperfect — all of us except Mama, even if the neighbors do think the lady is a tramp.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. To follow him, go to www.twitter.com/tyburr.

THE FIRST BEAUTIFUL THING

Directed by: Paolo Virzì

Written by: Virzì, Francesco Bruni, and Francesco Piccolo

Starring: Valerio Mastandrea, Stefania Sandrelli, Claudia Pandolfi, Micaela Ramazzotti, Giacomo Bibbiani

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 118 minutes

Unrated (as PG, some language and sexual situations)

In Italian, with subtitles

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