Bruno, the peevish sad sack at the center of the charming Italian comedy The First Beautiful Thing, has all the fixings of a decent life, including a stable job teaching at a vocational school and a faithful live-in girlfriend who seems more entertained than annoyed by his stubborn eye for the half-empty glass.
Bruno's real mission in life is to nurse old grievances while muddling through the day on prescription drugs illegally obtained at a local park — which also offers convenient amenities for lying down and staring at the sky. But the etiquette of redemptive drama demands an end to this mopey stasis, and as in many movies offered up by their countries for Best Foreign Film, self-actualization lurks just beyond a sharp uptick in current adversity and a difficult childhood recollected in flashback.
Thus is Bruno (Valerio Mastandrea) summoned by his excitable sister, Valeria (Claudia Pandolfi), to his home town of Livorno, a lovely place to spend time unless you're Bruno. There, his mother, Anna (played as a ripe young beauty by Micaela Ramazzotti and in later years by Stefania Sandrelli), lies dying of terminal cancer.
The faint whiff of mawkish autobiography is forcefully undercut by writer-director Paolo Virzi with antic pacing and a tone of genial good cheer that implies a gentle reproach to the Brunos of this world — children of the solipsistic '70s, coddled by a thousand blooming me-therapies into licking real or imagined wounds inflicted in their formative years by heedless parents.
True, Bruno's early days didn't foster a particular sense of security. Hitched to a succession of men who abused or neglected her before throwing her out on her ear, the naive young Anna invariably responded with a Micawberish faith in a better tomorrow. Faced with trouble, she would gather up her kids, burst into song and move on to her next gig as a spectacularly untalented extra on film sets involving Mastroianni and Loren. Now, faced with a painful death, Anna applies her irrepressible gift for happiness to living as she always has, with optimism and appetite, dragging with her the son who has dined out on resentment of his mother's anarchic joie de vivre.
Warmly lit and gracefully shot around the romantically untended old quarters of Tuscany, The First Beautiful Thing may strike you as a movie you've seen a thousand times since the birth of Italian neorealism. A low-born family in crisis comes together, yelling all the way and smeared in populist schmaltz. But Virsi sharpens the sentimentality of the emotional setup to a nicely serrated edge. It's fair to say that men in general and ardent Catholics in particular don't come off well. Yet even they are humanized by the movie's merciful temper, and by a cast of damaged ancillary characters wearing eccentric goodwill on their sleeves.
The First Beautiful Thing — which references a song Anna sings to lift her children's flagging spirits — springs some rote but satisfying 11th-hour surprises, among them an uncounted relative stemming from a long-buried act of maternal virtue. Just as Valeria will turn out to be her mother's daughter, so Bruno will learn that the small pleasures of life turn out to be its main event. There are worse things, he discovers as this lively bonbon of a movie takes its modest place in the canon of Italian cinematic mother-worship, than a flaky mom. Given the viragos who clot the landscape of American movies, we could use a little more of that worship this side of the pond.