4 stars (out of 4)
Sometimes great movies burst on us in unexpected ways. "The Best of Youth," director Marco Tullio Giordana's extraordinary film about two brothers and their family, friends and lovers traveling through almost four turbulent decades of Italian history, began as an Italian TV mini-series before premiering as a feature film at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival.
At Cannes, "Best of Youth" won the "Un Certain Regard" top prize and the hearts of many critics. Yet because of its unusual lengthtwo minutes shy of six hoursit hasn't been distributed in the U.S. until now. That length, the reason for its two-part showing, may cause filmgoers to shy away.
They shouldn't. "Best of Youth" is a major cinema event of the year, a masterpiece of Italian film traditions in social/political realism and historical family epic. Though originally made for television, it's a true heir to the line that includes Luchino Visconti's "The Leopard" and "Rocco and his Brothers," Roberto Rossellini's "Open City," and Ermanno Olmi's "The Tree of Wooden Clogs."
Like them, "Best" encapsulates an eraseveral eras, in factwithin the experience of characters so memorable and backgrounds so vivid that by the end, we feel as if we're leaving not a movie, but a whole world.
In a way we are. The main characters, brothers Nicola and Matteo Carati (played to perfection by brainy-looking Luigi Lo Cascio and charismatic Alessio Boni), are the sons of cheerful Roman businessman Angelo (Andrea Tidona) and model, loving mother Adriana (Adriana Asti). We meet the boys in the summer of 1965, during their college years, then move like a windstorm through their lives.
Matteo is a writer/scholar who is disgusted with education and angered at the treatment of Giorgia (Jasmine Trinca), an institutionalized girl he loves. He abandons art, becoming a hard-case cop. Nicola, as sunny-spirited as his dad, is likewise affected by Giorgia, becoming an activist and finally, a successful psychiatrist.
The initially loving brothers, pushed into radically different lives, seem headed toward a collisionand this is heightened by the tumultuous events and culture around them, from the Florentine flood relief of 1966 through the wars with the Mafia in Sicily and the radical terrorists of the '70s and '80s, underscored by a Martin Scorsese-like flow of period rock, pop and classical music.
Carried along with Nicola and Matteo are their hedonistic college buddies, including future bank executive Carlo (Fabrizio Gifuni); the Carati sisters, Francesca (Valentina Carnelutti) and Giovanna (Lidia Vitale) who becomes a magistrate; Matteo's girlfriend, Mirella (Maya Sansa), and Nicola's fiery wife, Giulia (Sonia Bergamasco), a piano-playing revolutionary who falls increasingly under the sway of the Red Brigades.
To describe everything that happens to these remarkable people, played by that brilliant cast, would be impossible, and it would kill one of the film's main pleasures: watching the way this complex, novelistic saga unfolds across the years, the ways characters evolve and grow. "Best of Youth" lacks the visual richness of Visconti's epics, but Giordana, Petraglia and Rulli give us amazing intimacy and psychological truth. Like the great novels of Tolstoy, Dickens, Dostoyevsky and Stendhal, it evokes vast landscapes and history by focusing on the human figures within them.
And though it's a film about politics made by one-time student leftists, it's unusually generous in its portrayal of varying world views. Moderate Nicola may be the most likable, but we care just as deeply, or more, about his cop brother Matteo, disturbed Giorgia and radical Giulia. The dominant mode is compassion.
With occasional exceptions like the "Godfather" and "Lord of the Rings" trilogies, movies usually can't give us the depth and scope of a classic novel, unless, like "Best," they started as TV mini-series. "Lonesome Dove," the BBC's "Pride and Prejudice" and Ingmar Bergman's "Scenes from a Marriage" and "Fanny and Alexander" are among the great examples; "The Best of Youth" belongs in that company.
I hope its length doesn't dissuade audiences. Plan to see it in two evenings, and you'll be amazed by how quickly the story sweeps you up. The scope of "Best of Youth" may seem daunting, but its rewards are many. This film about families and time is one made for the ages.
"The Best of Youth"
Directed by Marco Tullio Giordana; written by Sandro Petraglia, Stefano Rulli; photographed by Roberto Forza; edited by Roberto Missiroli; production designed by Franco Ceraolo; produced by Angelo Barbagallo. A Miramax Films release; opens Friday. In Italian, Norwegian and English, with English subtitles. Running time: 5:58. (Part 1: 3:02.; Part 2: 2:56) Rated R. Adult (for violence, sexuality, language, drug use.)
Nicola Carati - Luigi Lo Cascio
Matteo Carati - Alessio Boni
Adriana Carati - Adriana Asti
Giulia Monfalco - Sonia Bergamasco
Carlo Tommasi - Fabrizio Gifuni
Mirella Utano - Maya Sansa
Francesca Carati - Valentina Carnelutti
Giorgia - Jasmine Trinca
Giovanna Carati - Lidia Vitale