When Rex Reed covered the Toronto Film Festival last year for the New York Observer, his editors allowed him to spoil Dogville‘s ending for the paper’s audience. Several months later, Reed took on the New York Film Festival, reporting that his fragile posterior couldn’t get him past the first hour of Marco Tullio Giordana’s brilliant The Best of Youth. Reed, a gossip columnist disguised as a serious student of film, has forever been contemptuous of anything remotely avant-garde or demanding. From his “review” of Best of Youth: “If you have better eyesight and a stronger lower lumbar than I do, you might confront the challenge of reading six hours and six minutes of subtitles with more enthusiasm than I did.” His idea of a good Italian film? Mona Lisa Smile no doubt.
From a summer day in Roma in 1966 to a winter night in Norway in 2003, Best of Youth chronicles some 40 years in the lives of the Carati family and their friends. If not as visually intoxicating as Kusturica’s Underground or Bertolucci’s 1900 (Giordana conceived the film as a miniseries for Italian television but the idea was deemed too “bourgeois” by the powers-that-be), this epic elegy to family and country is no less seductive as a towering work of narrative fiction, generously giving itself to the people of Italy in the same way that Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children give themselves to the people of Colombia and India, respectively. Over the course of six riveting hours, Giordana weaves a delicate tapestry of human ecstasy and misery, paralleling the ups and downs of a family with the rise and fall of a country.
Italy unravels and so do its people. If the film has proved daunting for some (like Reed), it’s because the weight of the film’s characters is directly proportional to whatever is happening in the country at any given time. The story begins quietly in 1966, with two brothers Nicola (Luigi Lo Cascio) and Matteo (Alessio Boni) studying for exams. Matteo becomes obsessed with saving a young girl living at a mental institution and a cataclysmic emotional drama is set into motion when the men are separated from the mental handicap. Best of Youth stunningly recounts how a single incident in time sends two equally ambitious and sympathetic individuals on divergent paths. Once separated from Giorgia (Jasmine Trinca), Nicola (the Ajax to Matteo’s Achilles, though Atlas or Prometheus are probably more like it) decides to continue to save Italy from itself while Matteo decides to carry the weight of his country’s sins on his shoulders.
The socio-economic unrest that grips the nation contextualizes these characters’ lives. Giordana is upbeat but far from naïve, revealing everyone’s political views and nationalist perspectives quietly, inventively, and amusingly: wanting to tease a group of men enjoying a soccer match between Korea and Italy, the brothers humorously chant “Ko-re-a” over and over again; later, Nicola successfully demystifies his father’s idea of homosexuality as a mental disease in a matter of seconds. Having turned inward, Matteo joins the military and later becomes a police officer, the very thing the hippie Nicola and his future wife Giula (Sonia Bergamasco) despise. “Was it for self-defense?” someone asks at one point, encapsulating the film itself. Best of Youth is about the search for a national and personal identity and everything that happens to the Carati family becomes an act of self-preservation.
Yes, Best of Youth is talky, but it’s also unmistakably, blisteringly human. Dogged by his failure to save Giorgia, “madly mad” Matteo becomes a kind of untapped resource, withdrawing into a personal hell of self-loathing and anger that’s conspicuous because of its lack of a clear context. The man’s misery is a mystery to everyone; like his country, he inspires both awe and frustration, ravishing the world with his beauty and unpredictable emotional outbursts. Everyone wants to break in, but the code remains unknown. When he exits the film, he leaves the world in limbo and the survival of the Carati clan becomes predicated on its willingness to reconnect with the past. Predicated on a series of wonders, heartbreaks, and all sorts of second chances, Best of Youth moves and feels like life itself.
Giordana’s aesthetic is neither rigorous nor carefree, but it’s not anonymous. He has an uncanny instinct for effacement, reaffirming and blurring everyone’s search for both a national and personal identity. If Best of Youth feels boxed in (like Matteo and Giula, whose failure to outgrow her radical politics similarly shatters the family) that’s because Giordana makes poetry from close-ups of people’s faces—every smile and teardrop sculpted to perfection, complemented and propped by the surrounding historical canvas. The film’s greatest sequences take place inside museums, underground temples whose ancient scrolls have been compromised by floodwater, the Coliseum in Rome, and a waterfall and small church near the Arctic Circle in Norway where a misbegotten child goes to vicariously live his family’s best of youth. These scenes all work toward the same goal: to usher us into the future by connecting us to the past.