Paolo Virzì’s La prima cosa bella (2010) won multiple awards including several David di Donatello Awards - the Italian equivalent of the Oscars. The film depicts the emotional and social climate of Italy of the 1970s onward, through the bewildering memories of a literature professor who returns to assist his dying mother, played by an iconic actor of the history of Italian cinema, Stefania Sandrelli. Nicola di Bari’s song La prima cosa bella, which won the Sanremo Music Festival contest in 1973, is embraced as the leitmotif guiding the ‘journey’ from the past into what Virzì presents as a leading ‘mood’ across thirty-five years of national story. Virzì’s mise-en-scène, his meticulous reconstruction of the ambience through the passing decades, along with his masterful direction, have earned his craft and renewed Commedia all’italiana style much recognition with both viewers and critics. Some foreign critics and viewers, however, had no praiseful words for his film; they ‘read’ it as a contrived and forced family melodrama beyond the tolerable - to put it mildly. Daniele Luchetti’s film La nostra vita (2010) purports to depict a contemporary, multiethnic, Italy and tell the story of a young Italian construction worker and father - in his thirties - who attempts to make a quick transition from working-class bricklayer to construction foreman. Luchetti’ realistic style, in the tradition of Italy’s renowned cinematic aesthetic, aims to give his film a documentary ‘feel’ achieved through hand-held camera, ‘unlocked’ movements, and improvisation techniques, among others. The film did not earn as many awards as Virzì’s film, but nevertheless received recognition in Italy and abroad along with a Cannes Film Festival actor’s award to Elio Germano, for his engrossing portrayal of the main protagonist Claudio, in tie with Javier Bardem for his performance in Biutiful (2010) by Alejandro González Iñárritu. La nostra vita gradually gained a wider international audience, and most viewers found its story and depiction compelling. In virtue of its choice of story and execution, notable criticism appearing in foreign national papers, however, thought the film rather shallow and more suited to a TV-soap than to a feature film. How are we to understand such contradictory assessments? Is there an objective way to determine the greater or lesser quality of a film - in this case a foreign film? When can it be said that a film succeeds in its intended goals, and can this notion provide useful material to compare ‘national’ films, made by directors with differing styles and concerns? Answers to these questions may constitute substance for cinematic literacy that provide for good critical viewing skills. When recently attending a North-American public screening of Virzì’s film, and later Luchetti’s film - as part of one same event - I made a deliberate effort to observe and mentally register the viewers’ reactions and general feedback in the belief that these would afford useful clues and food-for-thought in support of the critical arguments presented here. The insights offered through this piece may contribute to give plausible answers to these questions.

In order to articulate a somewhat systematic response let us briefly cross-examine narrative and cinematic elements such as features of the story, cultural markers, cinematic style and execution, filmic standards, comparative parameters, and audience positioning and expectations. There are different layers in these stories. The characterization of the main protagonists’ individual specificity and the historical and socio-cultural contexts in which they find themselves in constitute one important layer. The composition of this first stratum - if you will - may appeal to a viewer’s intellectual and emotional curiosity or taste, according to this one’s willingness to yield to the new cultural experience; or depending on the previous knowledge of the cross-cultural experience for which some viewers may have developed a degree of sensibility. A viewer may have to come to terms with stereotypes or have to adjust one’s response according to the degree of familiarity or unfamiliarity with the events in order to appreciate the cinematic representation. In La prima cosa bella a viewer’s acquaintance with the history of Italy’s popular music and its festival traditions, or the musical quality and character of Italian provincial and national singer-songwriters - or even having just heard Nicola di Bari’s award winning song - may alert or predispose a viewer to the melodramatic thrust of the film. Along with the film’s musical theme there is that of the ‘Italian mamma,’ which is meant to drive the film forward, together with the main character’s (son Bruno) predicament of how to come to terms with what he perceives as a wearisome relationship, che mi ha rovinato la vita (‘that ruined my life’) - as the main character humorously labels it. A North-American audience, which may include viewers of Italian descent, may perceive these main threads as perpetuating stereotypes intolerable to ‘digest,’ and for such representation may not be willing to negotiate any meta-filmic distance. Likewise, Virzì’s rendition or ‘updated representation’ of Italian masculinity, in the guise of a befuddled or boyish professor who struggles to embrace what to this one appear the elusive standards of adulthood, may characterize the narrative event as an aimless and endless coming-of-age story, or as a vehicle for what may be perceived as the aesthetics of a peculiar Italian sentimentality. There is another perspective, however, to account for. The second layer, the subtext to the first story of Virzì’s film, has to do with the story of Italy’s national cinema. It is the aesthetic story of the evolution of Italian cinema, the story of a school of style and, in the specificity of La prima cosa bella, the story of this film’s personal character and its ability to mirror a cross-section of the nation as a whole. The features of this other story are closely related to the quality and arrangement of the elements relevant to the first story. A film-literate viewer, one adroit to identify visual patterns, tones, sub-codes, and styles, may be prepared to articulate how a film’s formal quality matches its content and, thus, succeeds in achieving its intended goals - just like a sommelier can identify and pair a good wine with the content of a banquet. Metaphorically speaking, Virzì knows how to select the right ingredients, ratios, and conditions that make for a good cinematic feast. The filmic standards and cinematic tradition Virzì marries, and further develops, ‘blossom’ within his directorial execution and personal style. Virzì’s scrupulous reconstruction of the 1970s - the cinematic interpretation of its colours and tones - his idiosyncratic sensibility when executing on film certain ‘images’ of Italians’ collective-memory are coupled by technical mastery of form. Virzì’s style is descriptive and subtle rather than flamboyant or pretentious. He is interested in evocative characterizations supported by an elegant but balanced use of formal strategies, chiefly mise-en-scène, cinematography, and (art) direction - whether they have to do with a child’s memory of his estranged father or a music festival’s atmosphere. His direction appears confident and yet ‘light handed’ when leading the actors into lifelike, ‘naturalistic,’ performances. Italian cinema’s characteristic depiction of the Mediterranean spirit, its joviality, its social struggles and expressive human character, all find appealing realizations in the aesthetic arc of the story, the functionality of its cinematography and use of colour temperatures - from vignette and sepia-like hues for the flashbacks to the colourful tinges of the present times. His quick-witted dialogues and vociferous characters of the 1970s are placed vis-à-vis the rather bemused characters and monosyllabic-like dialogues of the contemporary era. The aim of the film, that of ‘recalling’ and re-picturing a certain recent past, of telling the story of a national ‘sentiment,’ of providing the contemplative distance for re-visiting it, are all realized in Virzì’s formal and stylish approach, which owe to the lessons of the Commedia all’italiana tradition and yet transcend its standards, sediments, and stereotypes to inject ‘new blood’ in the tradition. La prima cosa bella is a noteworthy case where film form and function blend successfully and achieve the intended purpose fairly well - whether or not the viewer subscribes to the choice of themes and perspectives. In this respect, in subtext, one could look at Stefania Sandrelli’s filmic persona[1] as the embodiment of the death-and-revival of Italian memorable cinematic tradition.

Luchetti’s film title alone, La nostra vita, is very ambitious. It positions the viewer as one of the subjects as well as the target of its representation. Viewers familiar with Italian and world literature may perceive in the choice of words and ambitious scope an echo from the incipit of the Commedia poem, “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita,” and feel authorized to expect a contemporary epic-like depiction of one’s life-journey. Early on the story purports to offer a picture of a contemporary young Italian family, the predicament of migrant workers, and a certain Italy’s underground economy, along with the deterioration of Italian values and worsening social crisis. Luchetti aims at an engrossing cinematic narrative - a contemporary, graceless, story of redemption - and in the process at a work of social criticism. At both the center and side-line of Luchetti’s film, however, stands the ingombrante figure of Claudio - the main protagonist - made the more conspicuous by the director’s formal choices, the recurring close-up shots. To the exclusion of all other plots and characters’ predicaments La nostra vita stands out as the story of Claudio’s pain, the pain of a lower-class constructions worker who dreams ‘big,’ the pain of a young widower, the troubles and pains of an Italian who is constructed as the agency of xenophobic cultural behaviors. Viewers are invited by Luchetti’s style and execution to relate to Claudio’s persona and find sympathy for his ‘plight’ alone. The filmic standards adopted by Luchetti are supposedly re-proposing and renewing Italian cinema’s neorealist tradition, the Zavattinian approach, and subsequent documentary techniques. The resulting pattern in matter of cinematography - choice of lens, focal lengths, lighting, tones - mise-en-scène - setting, characters, movements, acting - as well as sequence duration and ordering, center largely on a single performance to which all other filmic elements and characters become subservient to. Luchetti’s ‘epic’ story, and choice of formal strategies, set out to accomplish a lot but end up falling victims of his narrow focus. The story of the Italian realist approach is suffocated by a clumsy mix of aims and genres - epic drama, social critique, neorealist-like subject matter, and experimentation with both fictional and documentary styles. When considering what each director aimed for, at a comparative level the cohesiveness of the patterns and tones, the arc and focus of their stories, the parameters adopted and the aesthetic results, decisively succeed and appear more consistent in Virzì film La prima cosa bella.

Contingent to their shared cultural background Luchetti and Virzì’s films, in fact, can be compared on the grounds of their directorial styles, by equating the results of their work to its original aims. A skilled viewer - a connoisseur of cinema - will differentiate between thematic concerns, cultural humus, perspective, and aesthetic strategies, in other words between a film’s subject matter, context, angle, and technical approach. Such critical skills are not acquired by merely watching films, including films originating from national cinemas different from one’s own. In addition to familiarizing oneself with, and developing a sensibility for, the traits and traditions of a foreign culture a skilled viewer trains one’s ability to interrogate a film’s ‘what’ and ‘how,’ cognizant of the general principle to which all art, including the art of cinema, subscribes to: that art by its very aesthetic nature and definition is subjective, and yet there are objective analyses and interpretations to which one may submit the combination of its elements.

There is no necessity therefore to account for what appear to be contradictory assessments of these films. At the public screenings I attended of La prima cosa bella and La nostra vita, the viewers’ reaction and feedback confirmed the arguments presented in this piece. The viewers of Virzì’s film expressed more satisfaction with the craftsmanship of La prima cosa bella, though some thought it a little too long. In spite of having to adjust and relate to the differences in cultural background many viewers concurred that they could relate to film’s chief theme and the manner in which it unfolded, the story of the children’s emotional ‘roller-coaster’ through the decades and their relationship with an ‘overbearing mother’ and with each other. In comparison several viewers of Luchetti’s film were overwhelmed with Elio Germano’s performance - Claudio’s story of sorrow and unhappiness - and had little to say about La nostra vita’s other equally important and broader theme, the social struggles of Italian as well as migrant workers.

The quality and styles of Italian cinema have been changing since the heyday of its old masters - Rossellini, De Sica, Visconti, Germi, Monicelli, Risi, Fellini, Antonioni, Rosi, Bertolucci, among others - and are constantly facing the new challenges posed by technology and cultural conformity, of how to preserve one’s cultural and linguistic heritage, which constitute the richness of flavor and form worthy of a national cinema. The hope is that filmmakers along with viewers will continue to discern and value the difference.           


- Bondanella, Peter. A History of Italian Cinema. New York: Continuum, 2009.
- Cristiano, Anthony. Contemporary Italian Cinema: Images of Italy at the Turn of the Century. Toronto: Polypus Publishing, 2008.
- Marcus, Millicent. After Fellini: National Cinema in the Postmodern Age. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 2002.
- Wood, Mary P. Italian Cinema. Oxford and New York: Berg, 2005.

[1] Italian cinema’s history is also marked by its performers such as Sandrelli’s in Divorzio all’italiana (Pietro Germi, 1961), and C’eravamo tanto amati (Ettore Scola, 1974).