Intimate, epochal, quietly unforgettable, "The Best of Youth" defies logic and expectation. Made for Italian television with no thought of export, it shouldn't have captivated the exclusive international film festival world, but it did. Clocking in at an almost unplayable six hours, it shouldn't be in a coveted Los Angeles theater like Laemmle's Royal, but it is. Those who see it will, quite frankly, not believe their luck. It is that satisfying, that engrossing, that good.
Directed by Marco Tullio Giordana from a 600-page script by Sandro Petraglia and Stefano Rulli, "Youth's" story compellingly intertwines one family's personal narrative with nearly 40 years of the defining events of recent Italian history, constructing a story line whose various threads play out masterfully from the mid-1960s to just about today. (The film will screen in two three-hour segments, which can be viewed over one or two days)
Rather than pushing the envelope to terra incognita, "Youth's" creative team has concentrated on pushing a different kind of envelope, on making mainstream, traditional cinema as good as they possibly can. This is a kind of filmmaking we've almost forgotten exists: serious, adult storytelling on a grand scale that deals with intensely dramatic events unrolling like a carpet whose rich patterns are a source of continual delight.
Despite its strengths, if not for a series of fortunate events "Youth" would never have spread its wings. An Italian scout for Cannes tipped the festival off to the film's qualities, and it appeared in the Un Certain Regard section in 2003, where it was the surprise jury prize winner.
Just as surprising, the film's emotional impact reduced normally hard-bitten Cannes audiences to tears. Miramax boldly took notice (six-hour films are not easy to distribute), as did the New York and Telluride film festivals and theatrical distributors in Italy, where the film did remarkably well on the big screen before finally appearing on television (in four 90-minute installments) considerably later than anyone anticipated.
The qualities that caused this success start with the remarkable scope of "Youth's" story, which is basically the story of the generation that came of age in the cataclysmic 1960s. Though the film's events are specifically Italian, the overarching turmoil and upheaval, and the sense of living in tumultuous times rife with social and political crisis, have parallels everywhere. Given that American culture is convinced it all but invented the '60s, it's more than a little ironic that the great film about that period should come from somewhere else.
Sensitively personalizing this story, elaborating on its themes of the strength of family and the necessity of embracing life, was the veteran Italian writing team of Petraglia and Rulli, whose credits include Gianni Amelio's memorable "Stolen Children."
Their "Youth" screenplay focuses on the Carati family, giving time to both parents and all four offspring but concentrating on the two middle children, brothers only one year apart in age, the warm and lively Nicola (Luigi Lo Cascio) and the more reserved Matteo (Alessio Boni).
We begin in the summer of 1966, when the brothers' university studies (Nicola's field is medicine, Matteo's literature) are about to take a seasonal break. But Matteo's chance encounter with Giorgia (Jasmine Trinca), a disturbed, ethereally beautiful young patient in a psychiatric hospital, ends up having a profound effect on both brothers' lives, underlining the social order's injustices and compelling them to confront and change society in ways that couldn't be more different in approach and results.
One of the great virtues of "Youth's" length is its refusal to be rushed into establishing character. We reconnect to its protagonists at a series of crossroads in their lives, as they attempt to find and define themselves against the backdrop of changing times. While they make decisions about love, career, the essential stuff of life, we see how difficult it is to know which choice to make, how simple actions can have unexpected consequences. Everyone we meet becomes over time not only older but more complex than the person we initially encountered.
Superior acting is essential in making all this happen, and "The Best of Youth" is filled with uniformly strong performances, too many to do justice to in a finite space. Special mention obviously must go to Lo Cascio, the film's emotional center, and Boni, who plays a character so convincingly enigmatic that we never feel we completely understand him no matter how desperately we want to.
Fans of Nanni Moretti's "The Son's Room" will remember actress Trinca, whose haunting, hunted look is one of the film's touchstones. Also excellent are the two actresses Sonia Bergamasco and Maya Sansa, whose characters play important roles in the brothers' lives. In some ways towering over everyone as the family matriarch is the veteran Adriana Asti, whose career extends back more than 40 years to another family epic, Visconti's "Rocco and His Brothers," and whose work for directors like Vittorio De Sica, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Bernardo Bertolucci gives her both unquestioned authority and impeccable skill.
Directing a film this ambitious, a film that could easily have turned into a standard miniseries, is a feat both logistically and emotionally, and Giordana, whose last work was the well-received "The Hundred Steps," has met both challenges admirably.
Working closely with cinematographer Roberto Forza, who made good use of close-ups and who shot in Super 16 millimeter later blown up to 35 millimeter, Giordana oversaw a no-frills 24-week shoot that utilized some 240 sets and had actors noticeably change age not once but several times.
On an emotive level, Giordana's direction is a case study in the effectiveness of faultlessly unobtrusive work. All characters, no matter what their actions, are allowed the same dignity and respect. This phenomenal decency and careful intelligence run through the film and give everything the unmistakable texture of reality. And restraint with the story's periodically sensational material allows the heart-stopping, melodramatic things that tend to happen in multipart family sagas to convince rather than turn us off.
"The Best of Youth" also does a persuasive job of working the events of the day into its story. There are small moments that might go unnoticed, such as Italians listening to their World Cup team on the radio, and major situations — cataclysmic floods in Florence, industrial unrest in Turin, the government's fight with the Mafia in Palermo. Also represented are countrywide movements such as the struggle for legal rights for mental patients (the screenwriters made a documentary on it, "Fit to Be Untied," in 1975) and the depredations of the murderous Red Brigades.
Despite its length, "The Best of Youth" (the title comes from a Pasolini poetry collection as well as an old Italian song) is characterized by its determination to pay attention to detail. The smallest roles are memorably cast (director Giordana says he chooses even the extras personally), and the film's sense of the music of the period — from the Four Tops' "Reach Out I'll Be There" to Dinah Washington's "Time After Time" to excerpts from Georges Delerue's "Jules and Jim" score and Fausto Leali's Italian jukebox hit "A Chi" — is immaculate.
Like all great popular melodramas, "The Best of Youth" has a pull that is strong enough to be classified as gravitational. Its length enables us to be involved in its characters' lives to a thrilling extent, and its warmth and intimacy, its belief that, as one character says, "What is the purpose of life but to live?" make that involvement worthwhile. The hectic nature of our contemporary lives means that one day might not be enough to experience this multi-hour epic, but no matter. Commit two nights to this exceptional film, and remember it for a lifetime.
'The Best of Youth'
MPAA rating: R, for language and brief nudity
Times guidelines: Much milder than the rating suggests; suitable for mature teens.
Luigi Lo Cascio...Nicola Carati
Alessio Boni...Matteo Carati
Adriana Asti...Adriana Carati
Sonia Bergamasco...Giulia Monfalco
Fabrizio Gifuni...Carlo Tommasi
Maya Sansa...Mirella Utano
Valentina Carnelutti...Francesca Carati
A Rai Fiction production, released by Miramax Films. Director Marco Tullio Giordana. Producer Angelo Barbagallo. Executive producer Alessandro Calosci. Screenplay Sandro Petraglia, Stefano Rulli. Director of photography Roberto Forza. Editor Roberto Missiroli. Costume design Elisabetta Montaldo. Production design Franco Ceraolo. In Italian with English subtitles. Running times: Part 1, 3 hours, 2 minutes; Part 2, 2 hours, 56 minutes.
Exclusively at Laemmle's Royal, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 477-5581. Separate admissions; Part 1 screens Fri., Sun., Tue. and Thu. at 12:30 and 8 p.m., Sat., Mon. and Wed. at 4:15 p.m. Part 2 screens Fri., Sun., Tue. and Thu. at 4:15 p.m., Sat., Mon. and Wed. at 12:30 and 8 p.m.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times