The sexual mother may find herself as pornographic content for the straight imagination, but European cinema has often cast her as a cinematic delicacy. In films such as director Paolo Virzì’s The First Beautiful Thing, the mother/whore dichotomy collapses in whimsical ways: The mother is the whore. Not that it takes much to be one; all she needs to do is choose authenticity over acquiescence.
We saw this whorification of the mother through the eyes of her little son in The 400 Blows, in the recent I Am Love, where the son infers maternal “whoreness” through Eisensteinien montage, and in Louis Malle’s Murmur of the Heart, in which the sexual mother and her son end up transcending the incest prohibition altogether. In The First Beautiful Thing, the relationship between this mother (played by Micaela Ramazzotti in flashbacks, Stefania Sandrelli in the present day), who decides to take charge of her own destiny, and the son (Giacomo Bibianni as a child, Valerio Mastandrea as an adult) who’s forced to watch it powerlessly Oedipalized is weaved backward from her death bed to the eroticized parental bed of childhood.
The mother here is less of a siren, more like a ditzy ingénue with Sofía Vergara looks who flees the violent husband only to fall into the hands of other abusive men who promise her stardom and give her work as an extra—in pictures starring Marcelo Mastroianni nonetheless. Which works out fine because she can’t seem to memorize a single line of dialogue. Her free spiritedness is organic, and she shouts and flees without much intellectual labor. The son and his sister get yo-yoed back and forth from mother to father, who each takes turns kidnapping their offspring.
While the family drama is shot with a playful sense of humor and a melodramatic distance that beckon neither tears nor laughter, leaving the spectator at a bit of a loss, it eventually becomes evident that this is about the unspoken tensions, erotic and not, between mother and son. He’s unable to be anything other than a silent witness to the mother’s spectacle, and her exhibitionist tendencies just ooze out. In a scene particularly evocative of this filial impotence before maternal sexual display, the son watches the mother having sex through an open door. It’s the mother who opens the door as if looking for an audience and then slams it closed. The son then gets up and walks outside in his tight tank top and tiny underwear and finds his father smoking a cigarette. It’s the first time we see the father peaceful, even a bit embarrassed by the sight of the son. In a settling of accounts of sorts, the father seems to bribe the son into his position of eternal and silent witness, the platonic third lover in this triangle, giving him money so he won’t tell anyone what he’s seen. And he doesn’t.