Originally published Thursday, August 25, 2011 at 1:01 PM

Movie review

'The First Beautiful Thing:' the complex ties of a mother and son

Paolo Verzi's dramedy concerns a wary teacher who has to overcome an old ambivalence in order to see his terminally ill mother

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 2.5 stars

'The First Beautiful Thing,' with Valerio Mastandrea, Stefania Sandrelli, Claudia Pandolfi, Giacomo Bibbiani, Aurora Frasca, Micaela Ramazzotti, Sergio Albelli. Directed by Paolo Virzi, written by Virzi, Francesco Bruni, Francesco Piccolo. Unrated (some language and sexual situations).

118 minutes. Northwest Film Forum.

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"The First Beautiful Thing," Italy's engaging if sudsy, 2011 entry to the Academy Awards for the best foreign-language Oscar, begins in the early 1970s with a young family attending an outdoor beauty pageant.

They are clearly not having a very good time.

A scowling little boy, Bruno (Giacomo Bibbiani), seems wary despite the surrounding hoopla. His younger sister, Valeria (Aurora Frasca), is in her own world. When their pretty mother, Anna (Micaela Ramazzotti), is called to the stage as an example of a beautiful mom, she goes up reluctantly. Upon her return, she recognizes the stormy look on the face of her husband, Mario (Sergio Albelli), as trouble ahead.

She's right. Mario, offended by the attention Anna received, later tosses her and the kids out into the street. It's Bruno's cautious resilience during the crisis, however, that tells us his father's abuses are a constant. And it will also be little Bruno who, with his dark look of constant anticipation, shows us what it's like to be raised by a flighty, overattentive mother determined to stay with her children no matter how absurd their living situation or how unfairly sullied her reputation.

Cut to 2009, and an older Bruno (Valerio Mastandrea) looks no less beleaguered by his ambivalence toward a girlfriend and the needs of his students at a vocational school. So he's hardly thrilled when Valeria (Claudia Pandolfi) shows up to tell him Anna is terminally sick and his presence is required.

Cutting back and forth between Bruno's perspective as a boy, a man and an adolescent (an excellent Francesco Rapalino), this dramedy by writer-director Paolo Virzi is as funny as it is sentimental. The tale of a dour man who reluctantly comes to terms with the first important woman in his life (Stefania Sandrelli plays Anna in her twilight), "The First Beautiful Thing" is about seeing how everything in time comes full circle, including a parent's complete legacy.

Virzi invites us onto the merry-go-round in well-drawn, quite distinct chapters in the lives of these characters. Everything leads to a momentous day in which hearts are opened and acceptance transcends doubt. Virzi approaches mawkishness but he never crosses the line.

Even if he did, Bruno would be there to wearily drag the film back.

Tom Keogh:

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