The kind of movie rarely attempted any more — and even less frequently achieved with any measure of success — Marco Tullio Giordana’s “The Best of Youth” is an impassioned epic that sweeps up its characters in nearly 40 years of human drama and social history, intertwining the two with a master seamstress’ delicacy. At nearly six hours, pic’s extreme length lets Giordana and screenwriters Sandro Petraglia and Stefano Rulli build up a novelistic rhythm, pulling the audience so deeply and forcefully into their story that it becomes like a enveloping dream; when it’s over, parting with the characters is truly sweet and sorrowful. A rousing success at Cannes, both with the audience (which erupted into a lengthy standing ovation) and the Un Certain Regard jury (which awarded the pic its top prize), “Youth” will be served at many of the prestigious fall festivals, with a shot at specialized commercial runs along the lines of similarly super-sized films (“Heimat,” “Berlin Alexanderplatz”) before it.
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Like the best epics, “The Best of Youth” is rooted in intimate family details. Pic devotes itself to the lives of two brothers — Nicola (Luigi Lo Cascio) and Matteo (Alessio Boni) Carati –as they branch out and eventually reconnect over the many decades depicted. The two are opposites: Nicola the compassionate, free-spirited romantic, who travels the world and wins many beautiful women before settling into a successful career as a psychiatrist; Matteo the tragical introverted idealist, attuned to the world’s suffering and imperfections in a consuming, Bressonian way, ultimately joining the Italian police with the hope of righting society’s wrongs.
Opening in the summer of 1966 and stretching to the present day, “The Best of Youth” is (like “The Leopard” and “Rocco and His Brothers”) fundamentally about time and about the many things time destroys while keeping so much the same. Although the film unfolds linearly, it is possible to see it as one long flashback, as the adult Nicola reflects back on his youth with a honey-glazed nostalgia.
The early scenes of the film, in which we first meet the teenage brothers — plus their friends Carlo (Fabrizio Gifuni) and Vitale (Claudio Gioe) — cast off a warm, welcoming glow, suffused with an overwhelming, but not cloying, sense of carefree youth. It’s the last hurrah of innocence, with the young men unknowingly poised on the precipice of one of the most tumultuous periods in Italian history.
It becomes the not-unfamiliar pattern of “The Best of Youth” that the characters are pushed together and pulled apart by the tides of history. So, after parting ways during a summer trip to Norway, Nicola and Matteo find themselves unexpectedly reunited in Florence in 1966, in the aftermath of the city’s devastating flooding by the Arno River. Matteo is a soldier now. Nicola is a bearded intellectual and in love with the fiery Giulia (Sonia Bergamasco), a budding communist (based in part on the real “Red Brigades” member Adriana Faranda), who will find herself on the opposite side of the law from Matteo (as well as the brothers’ sister Giovanna, a magistrate) during the “leaden years” of the 1970s.
What is remarkable about “The Best of Youth” is its tireless devotion to all things human-scale, so that its politics and personalities seem inextricably intertwined but never forced on one another. Nor does the movie take political sides; the only polemic it has is an advocacy of the human experience lived to its fullest. Nicola and Giulia start a family together; Carlo, now a budding politician on his way to becoming an important finance minister, proposes marriage to Francesca (the youngest Carati sibling). And by the time the first half of the film draws to a close, with the 1980 wedding of Carlo and Francesca (in one of the great movie weddings), the audience is hungry for more.
The movie’s second part (it is divided into roughly equal three-hour sections) the characters age courtesy of some wonderfully subtle makeup effects, and their lives move away from the epicenters of social change — though there are still glimpses of current events, like the Falcone assassination in 1992.
A certain routine sets in for most, but also, for some, a sense of defeat, of dreams deferred and opportunities to change the world gone unrealized. Growing older and supposedly wiser is, it turns out, not for everyone, as the specter of inevitable mortality rears its ugly head.
Pic now focuses on Nicola and his efforts to raise his daughter, Sara (played as a teenager by Camilla Filippi), while Giulia serves out a prison term for her terrorist actions, as well as Nicola’s quest to learn more of Matteo’s life.
Relative newcomer Lo Cascio (who made his film debut in Giordana’s previous “The Hundred Steps”) commands this part of the film with a turn so richly textured and beautifully naturalistic that Nicola seems less a character than an inner dimension of the actor’s own personality. Nearly all of the principle performers affect a similarly organic sense of being (cast partly for the fact that many of them attended Rome’s National Drama Academy together), and there is a feeling over time of seeing real human lives played out on the screen.
But perhaps Giordana’s most impressive achievement is his clarity of vision, the way he seems perpetually in command of this far-reaching, potentially unwieldy opus. Originally produced for Italian television, it’s shot in a close-cropped television style and lacks the visual opulence of many of the films (like the Viscontis) that it otherwise recalls.
But the movie more than makes up in emotion and storytelling what it may lack elsewhere, never overplaying its hand or overstaying its welcome. Indeed, pic was both the longest and, arguably, the shortest-seeming film on display at Cannes this year.
Largely eschewing a conventional orchestral score in favor of source music, pic is a treasure trove of musical riches, from the Animals to Georges Delerue, and a particularly deft recurrent use of Doris Fisher and Allan Roberts’ “Amado Mio.”