Family dynamics are always tricky, and it seems the passage of time only makes them more complicated. For many, the memories of one's upbringing are tinged with both melancholy and joy, and throughout all the ups and downs no factor bears heavier on the adults we become, than the guiding (or possibly misguiding) hands of our parents. 'The First Beautiful Thing' sheds a light on all of these concepts, weaving a humorous and tragic tale of family, growth, and the joys of life. With a slightly heightened style, director Paolo Virzi presents a misfit gang of lovably flawed characters, and finds plenty of comedy and drama through their volatile familial relationships. While some of the broader strokes don't always work, and a few spots feel slightly disconnected, the film ultimately succeeds, effectively eliciting laughter and tears.
After his sister forces him to do so, a drug addicted professor, Bruno (Valerio Mastandrea), returns to his home town in order to spend time with his dying mother, Anna (Stefania Sandrelli). The two have a somewhat rocky history and Bruno is at first reluctant to accept the situation and face his guarded emotions. Flashbacks to the siblings' childhood reveal an erratic upbringing while fleshing out Anna's own motivations and struggles as a parent. While Bruno slowly makes peace with his past and reconnects with his mother, he realizes there might still be a chance to better his life after all, but it will mean embracing all of the messy relationships he ran away from so many years ago.
In large part, the film becomes a juggling act of tones that bounce back and forth between past and present. The filmmakers blend comedy and drama well, often finding humor in the contradictory and sometimes outlandish behavior of the various characters. Scripting and directing choices oscillate between understated and slightly exaggerated. While the faintly larger-than-life aspects of the style and characterizations can be quite entertaining, they do sometimes clash with the more quiet and realistic qualities of the film. Thankfully, the director mostly knows when to pull back, and there are some genuinely touching moments in between the louder, manipulative beats. A few conversations and heart to hearts are really well done, offering some poignant and cathartic insights.
For the most part, the flashback structure is effective and cohesive, with each new segment from the past informing the development of the characters. With that said, there are some instances that feel unfinished or underdeveloped. On that same note, the flashbacks can also feel a bit unfocused in relation to the larger narrative. The film as a whole is really ultimately about Bruno, and while the flashbacks form a pretty comprehensive picture of his upbringing, they also place a large emphasis on Anna and other diversions. This works to expand upon her character and form a parallel between mother and son, but the shifting focus can feel a bit disjointed and uneven, leaving plot points about both characters a little unfulfilled.
The director's visual style and staging all help to further the story's varying tones. Virzi often uses wide angle lenses to slightly distort and exaggerate the frame. This skews our perspective just a bit, heightening the mood and atmosphere. Scenes are often bustling with activity, with several notable sequences littered with a wide cast of characters that the director effortlessly juggles. A few long takes evoke a frenzied family atmosphere that will surely remind many viewers of their own manic get-togethers and celebrations.
Performances are also strong, both in the present day and flashbacks. Stefania Sandrelli and Micaela Ramazzotti are great as the elder and younger Anna. A complicated woman full of life and energy, she clearly cares about her children deeply, and while her intentions might be good, her ultimate choices are not always in their best interest. The actresses manage to keep a certain continuity and cohesion between the character and bring added depth to a potentially one-note and overbearing role. Valerio Mastandrea is also great as the depressed, listless, and seemingly lost Bruno. His character almost always wears a beaten scowl on his face and his journey toward possibly accepting and embracing his past and future rests at the very core of the film.
Family relationships are messy, chaotic and wholly imperfect. Sometimes people make you proud and sometimes they disappoint, but through it all, love somehow remains constant. 'The First Beautiful Thing' celebrates all of the good without shying away from the bad, and while the execution isn’t without some flaws, the film mostly succeeds. The humor and drama are nicely balanced, and even though some of the broader strokes can clash and feel over-the-top, the more understated triumphs and tragedies feel all too real. This is a case where the film's whole is greater than the sum of its individual parts, resulting in an entertaining and emotional experience.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Palisades Tartan brings 'The First Beautiful Thing' to Blu-ray on a region A BD-25 disc that comes packaged in a keepcase. After some skippable trailers, the disc transitions to a standard menu.
The movie is provided with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Seemingly authentic and at times quite pleasing, this is an all around nice looking transfer.
The source print is in great shape with a moderate layer of film grain, giving the image a sometimes gritty but natural appearance. Clarity is often strong, with a good level of detail and dimension. Colors are vivid but tend to veer toward a very warm palette tinged in yellow (particularly in the flashbacks). With that said, some of the present day scenes can look slightly muted and are bathed in cooler hues. Contrast is quite hot and occasionally blown out. Black levels are deep and inky throughout but can look a tad crushed. Though this all leads to a decidedly harsh look at times, the visuals all seem to be in line with the director's intended aesthetic.
With its intentionally stylized look, 'The First Beautiful Thing' arrives on Blu-ray with a very solid video presentation. The colors and contrast aren't exactly natural, but they lend the image some decent pop and serve the contrasting tones of the story well.
The audio is presented in an Italian DTS-HD MA 5.1 track along with optional English subtitles. With subtle but effective sound design, the mix complements the visuals well.
Dialogue is clear and crisp throughout with no signs of distortion. With that said, there are a few occasions when the subtitles appear to be slightly off sync with the audio. Thankfully, the discrepancy between the two is small, and the majority of the presentation is timed properly. The soundstage is understated but wide, offering an appropriate mix of directional and disperse effects for the film's various locations. Applause, traffic, rain, and general city ambiance all hit the surrounds for an enveloping but not overwhelming experience. A few audio pans are also well executed, including an instance where a scooter seamlessly transitions from the rear soundstage to the front. The musical soundtrack features some decent bass activity, but most of the running time rarely calls for any real rumble or punch. Dynamic range is wide with solid fidelity and balance between the audio elements is good.
For a dramedy, 'The First Beautiful Thing' can actually be surprisingly lively with a nice variety of nuanced effects and music choices. Though I detected some minor issues with the subtitles, the track itself is free of any major problems and even offers some decent immersion.
'The First Beautiful Thing' effectively blends comedy and drama into a bittersweet story about love and family. The scripting can be a little uneven, and some of the flashbacks are underdeveloped, but as a whole, the film presents a humorous and ultimately cathartic experience. The video and audio are both good, providing a seemingly faithful presentation. Unfortunately, supplements are essentially nonexistent, with only a few trailers offered. Despite the lack of special features, the film itself is still worth a look.