Monday, April 11, 2011

Family film, Italian style: Paolo Virzi's THE FIRST BEAUTIFUL THING opens in NYC; short Q&A with the director/co-writer

The more I see of modern Italian movies (and this is most probably true of the old ones, too), family seems front and center -- the single most important thing in the world.  Now, a case could be made for films from many other countries offering this view, too, but does anyone do "family" with more feeling, humor, and & all-round importance than the Italians?  I ask this, having seen for the second time one of the best of the films from this year's FSLC Open Roads: THE FIRST BEAUTIFUL THING (La prima cosa bella) directed and co-written by Paolo Virzi. In it, family takes a licking but comes on strong: kicking, screaming, screwing, withdrawing, laughing, and loving beyond all measure.

This is a "then and now" movie, as a middle-aged man is drawn back to his dying mother and his sister and so begins to relive "old times."  If a sense of  déjà vu is already descending, trust me -- you won't have seen a movie quite like this. Signore Virzi (shown at right) understands that, in our lives, there are few out-and-out villains. Peo-ple simply try their best -- however dumb, funny, wrong or sad they end up being.  One of the delights of this filmmaker is that he never pushes an agenda; he just lays out character and situation and lets these come up with events that, if singled out, might seem crazy, but as shown here are just part of the "family scene."

He also offers that quintessentially Italian idea that, no matter what happens, there's a way around or through it. The woman at the center of all this, Anna Nigiotti -- played by the Italy's Best Actress-winner Micaela Ramazzotti (above) as her younger incarnation, and by Stefania Sandrelli (seated, center, below) in later years. Together, this succulent combination of Italian womanhood makes up one of those memorable characters that will stick with you forever.

A ball of fire who protects her children come what may (below: a happy little girl and a near-consistently angry little boy--who grows up to be the film's "hero"), mom barrels through life, knocking senseless conventionality, sexuality, religion, medicine, psychiatry, and most of the men around her in the quest for a life for herself and her kids. Why she must do this -- and how -- makes for the one of the most enjoyable, moving movies of the year, the kind you want to share with everyone you love.

That "hero," by the way is played by Italian everyman Valerio Mastandrea (above left), whose performance won him Italy's Best Actor award.

In a year of extraordinarily good Italian films, this one was Italy's choice to represent it in this year's Oscar sweeps for Best Foreign Language Film.  Along with a bunch of other wonderful films from around the world that didn't even make the Academy's shortlist, Virzi's, at least, is getting a U.S. release -- via Palisades Tartan. The film opens this Friday, April 15, in New York City at the Angelika Film Center.  Be there, and scoop up a bowl of extended family, the likes of which you won't have experience in a movie theater in quite some time.

I am sorry that Signore Virzi -- whom I met briefly some years back, when his Caterina in the Big City made its Open Roads debut -- will not be here for his new film's opening. But thanks to his PR rep Susan Senk, I was able to ask him, via email, a few questions about his movie, Italy, family, current times -- and even the Mafia. Here is our conversation, below, with TrustMovies in bold and Paolo Virzi in standard type

Ciao, Paolo—
I have only seen three of your films (My Name in Tannino, Caterina in the Big City, and now The First Beautiful Thing) but these are enough to make you one of my favorite directors -- I think for your ability at invention and for the humanity you allow to fall on all your characters.

Paolo Virzì: Thank you, this is very kind of you. I hope I will not disappoint you with my next films.

I doubt that. When I interviewed Silvio Orlando a couple of years back, the world was in the midst of the big financial crisis (actually, it pretty much still is, right?). Orlando told me that it did not seem to have hit Italy as badly as other countries, and when I asked him why, he told me he felt it was because of how highly Italians value family. That family must always come first. And if so, this would allow Italians to rally more strongly. This has stuck with me ever since then, and I wonder how you feel about Orlando’s statements.

Family in Italy is probably the strongest social shock-absorber and at the same time it is the offspring of many of our cultural weaknesses. Right now we have a very high unemployment rate among young people, but it's impossible here to imagine a social riot of the new generations like the ones we are witnessing in Maghreb. There are families: fathers, mothers, grandparents to protect sons and grandsons. Family seems to be at the same time our big strength and our sickness. A sort of our social pain reliever with the side effect of sedating and frustrating our new generations.

In your films family is very important, but it is often a rather strange or different or extended version of family that we see and come to love. This is so true with your latest film. One of my favorite scenes is the one in which the little boy follows the man who has been making love to his mother out from the basement of the store – only to discover that it is his estranged father. This speak volumes, I think, about the odd twists and turns that love and sex and family can take.

That's an interesting question. I come from a traditional lower-middle-class italian family, but I don't think my films convey an idyllic idea of the Family. For instance both in my last film and in "Caterina" there are troublemaking and immature fathers, and a kind of peace seems to be possible when they die or disappear.

If family loyalty is the most important, pivotal point for Italians, I wonder how something like the Mafia plays into this? I would imagine a connection here: family, loyalty, and the like. I cannot image the Mafia or the Camorra taking hold so firmly in any other country. Do you have any thoughts on this? (Or maybe I am really “barking up the wrong tree,” as we say….)

Tons of thoughts, that would required a whole book. You are probably barking the right tree. Our main sickness as the young nation we are is what sociologists call amoral familism. But there are other serious questions: Who have determined the mafia phenomenon, which in fact exists also in Russia, in China, in South America....

And is there anything else you’d like to talk about that I have not brought up – and which journalists never seem to ask you, but you always wish they would?

No, no. I'm pretty satisfied of your interesting and unusual questions. Thank you very much.

Thank you – and keep ‘em coming -- your films, I mean!

(All photos are from the film itself, with the 
exception of that of the director, above.)

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