Classical narrative has dominated Hollywood commercial filmmaking for so long that it’s easy to grow a bit jaded toward it, particularly when best-selling screenwriting gurus promote plot structures by page numbers. (“Plot point one must occur within three pages of the 30-minute mark…”) But films that really know how to spin a good yarn, create memorable characters with complex shadings, utilize talented actors, and render novelistic stories are rare enough that they stand out like hand carved sculptures in a Wal-Mart store.
Marco Tullio Giordana’s The Best of Youth attains its degree of accomplishment partially by allowing itself the luxury of time–six hours of it. Generating rave reviews around the globe, the film laid around the vaults of Miramax for a couple of years until it finally received its US distribution this month, earlier at the Film Forum in New York City and this week at the Laemmle Royal in Los Angeles. Both theatres opted to show the film in two parts with separate admissions, and after glowing reviews in the Los Angeles Times and the LA Weekly, the single screen Royal was swamped with several hundred ticket buyers last weekend forming a rare line that extended several blocks down Santa Monica Boulevard. So much for exhibition hand-wringing.
Written by Sandro Petraglia and Stefano Rulli (the craftsmen behind Amelio’s Stolen Children and The Keys to the House), the film details the lives of two Italian brothers from their college years in the ’60s through their early careers up into the present day, intertwining their lives with key moments from nearly a half century of Italian history. Nicola (Luigi Lo Cascio) and Matteo (Alessio Boni) Carati are initially drawn to the field of psychology, but only Nicola makes a career of it; Matteo finds his inner desire for structure and rules directs him to the military. In a sense both brothers represent two paths to justice–empathy and enforcement–although the film is far too nuanced to make either character into a symbol.
The brothers begin in an era of intellectual curiosity and grow through a time of social upheaval that comes close to pitting the two of them on either side of a cultural divide–Nicola attempting to reform institutions and Matteo seeking to defend them. The film carefully traces their lives as they travel through Italy (and abroad), building and moving beyond their assorted relationships as they process largely undefined emotional baggage inherited from their formative years.
In fact, the view of Italian history presented in The Best of Youth is less political than emotional, with many key eras and events (educational reform, social protests, corporate malfeseance) relayed as supporting contexts for character development more than social commentary. The viewer never gets a full understanding of the political discourse that happened during these years, but attains a strong sense of how that discourse affected certain lives. While one could argue that this is an inherently conservative bias in its engagement of history (similarly the drama stresses a riot guard’s injuries rather than a protester’s and paints the only political reactionary in the film as a terrorist), the film is far from socially apathetic and displays a genuine degree of human understanding.
To a large extent, the screenplay relies heavily on certain rites of passage (taking exams, graduating, enjoying young love, getting married, establishing a career and family) to anchor its plot. But it also avoids the pratfalls of easy melodrama by maintaining a psychological distance from its characters–while their lives are carefully and intimately presented, there are never any obvious explanations for their choices or behaviors. At one point, Nicola (a psychiatrist) muses that of all people, he himself ought to understand Matteo’s ambiguous emotional pains, but he regrets that he doesn’t; it’s a statement that could be equally applied to the viewer, and the film creates a significant amount of dramatic momentum with its interplay of emotional action and psychological mystery.
In many ways, The Best of Youth is vehicle for the beauty of the Italian landscape and culture as they reveal and comment upon the search for personal identity–making an overt reference to Roberto Rossellini’s Stromboli in one scene entirely appropriate in more ways than one. With its superlative ensemble cast and deft dramaturgy, the film offers a compelling example of mainstream narrative filmmaking at its finest.