La prima cosa bella (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
A vocational school teacher, Bruno (Valerio Mastandrea), is tracked down by his sister, Valeria (Claudia Pandolfi), and informs him that their mother, Anna (Stefania Sandrelli), has received a grim diagnosis and that she has only a few days left to live. Reluctant Bruno, wishing minimal contact with his mother for undisclosed reasons, decides to return to his hometown to provide closure to the woman who raised him.
“La prima cosa bella,” also known as “The First Beautiful Thing,” written by Paolo Virzì, Francesco Bruni, and Francesco Piccolo, struggles to find a comfortable footing with its tone so the human emotions that it attempts communicate does not have enough power to ultimately move the audience. The film is divided into three sections: the present involving Anna’s looming demise, the ‘70s recalling Anna’s struggle in protecting and providing for her kids when she left her abusive husband, and the ‘80s providing possible reasons why Bruno became so angry with his mother.
I found myself wanting to relate to the material because I saw a part of myself in Bruno, from his wanting to be taken seriously to his interest in the knowledge embedded in books. However, the more humorous moments tend to overshadow the darkness inherent to the story. For example, the Anna and her family eventually find themselves on the verge of destitution. Anna feels she has to, in a way, prostitute herself to men who can provide for her children and herself. Not enough emphasis is placed on their reality. Instead, amusing situations unfold and funny one-liners are exchanged.
As the young Anna (Micaela Ramazzotti), Ramazzotti is quite convincing as a mother who loves to have fun as much as she loves her children. I enjoyed that despite her carefree attitude, we are never certain if she is a responsible parent. She keeps us on our toes because we grow to care about the children.
While there is a relatively engaging flow between the scenes, the unbearable score is consistently out of touch with the images presented on screen. For instance, when something sad is happening, the background music remains somewhat upbeat. Music designed to lead us on how to feel is not necessary here because its absence would have given us a chance to absorb the situation of the broken family. Because the music is so forceful in suggesting specific feelings, the filmmakers communicate their a lack of complete confidence in the material.
What the film, directed by Paolo Virzi, shows confidence in, however, is showing Bruno, as an adult, lacking the self-esteem to show affection for people, whether it be toward his girlfriend, sister, or mother. He recoils at the idea of someone touching his hand or putting arms around him. This piqued my curiosity and I admired the film’s boldness in not giving an easy answer. A lot of information is given to us abound his formative childhood and teenage years so the answer, or answers, is likely to be in there somewhere. Unlike the obvious music clues, the decision to hold back shows a level of assurance.