The First Beautiful Thing: An Italian Salute to a Very Strong Woman

If there’s a more complicated place than Italy to be a beautiful woman, the filmmaking world has yet to identify it. Paolo Virzi’s winsome family melodrama begins with an alluring young mother named Anna (Micaela Ramazzotti) being reluctantly crowned the evening’s belle, “Miss Mamma,” at a community event. The crowd’s attention—good-natured at first—veers into the vulgar, and Anna’s husband (Sergio Albelli) begins to seethe behind his tight smile. The film toggles between what follows that moment in 1971—Anna flees her husband’s escalating jealous rages with her two children, and the three embark on an itinerant, hand-to-mouth life—and the present day, in which her son, Bruno (Valerio Mastandrea), and daughter, Valeria (Claudia Pandolfi), tend to a terminally ill but still vivacious Anna (Stefania Sandrelli). Bruno has been guilted into returning to Anna’s side, having left their hometown of Livorno years before to build a loner’s life of drug addiction and well-nursed resentments. Bruno’s contempt for his mother is slowly disentangled from his loathing of provincial Italy’s treatment of women who don’t conform (and look fabulous not doing it). Virzi’s delicate touch and the cast’s uniformly captivating performances make that reckoning a lovely, charmingly melancholy thing to watch.