The dreamer and the realist; the hardboiled cop and the leftist student; the loner and the earnest family man: The two Carati brothers, Matteo and Nicola, are perennial counterparts across four decades of contemporary Italian history, even as their blood continues to bind them. Marco Tullio Giordana's sweeping saga The Best of Youth tells of the pair's individual journeys, while it also documents the economic, political and social upheaval of the late 20th century.
Originally broadcast on Italian television as a mini-series, The Best of Youth has been repackaged as a six-hour theatrical release, to be presented in two three-hour segments. Viewers shouldn't be dissuaded by the film's length; the film is engaging throughout and its passage is effortless and rewarding.
Giordana begins his story in Rome, during the summer of 1966, with the era's open promise. Nicola (Luigi Lo Cascio) and Matteo (Alessio Boni) have finished their college exams and, along with their carefree, scooter-riding buddies, are planning a holiday in Norway. It's all wine and laughs, and the scenes of beach trips and rambles are infused with a golden sunlight.
Yet before their holiday, a short journey with a mentally ill teen-ager, Giorgia (Jasmine Trinca), sets the brothers on separate paths. The split is more than physical ... Matteo travels on to Norway, while Nicola returns to Rome; the episode with Giorgia also spurs each brother away from the other philosophically.
Nicola returns to Italy to study psychiatric medicine and joins the student left in Turin; Matteo becomes a cop. (Because this is social history reduced to fiction, you can expect the pair to reunite during a violent street demonstration.) Their lives draw further apart ... the hotheaded Matteo is transferred often, while Nicola settles down and by dint of his stability and profession becomes the de facto family caretaker.
Yet Nicola's life is marked by upheaval as well ... his common-law wife, Giulia (Sonia Bergamasco), falls into radical politics ... but he is the epitome of post-war promise: buffeted by events, but adapting to continue domestic and professional success. For the tormented Matteo, this new world order offers nothing but confusion and disillusionment. He joins the police force in an attempt to cure his sensitivity, but it's an act that proves self-defeating: Maintaining law and order forces him directly into the muck of humanity.
Matteo is not the story's only tragic figure; others, too, find the past a burden or otherwise lack the skills to move forward with history. The script, by Sandro Petraglia and Stefano Rulli, seamlessly weaves this history through the Caratis' story ... the Florence flood, Brigade Rossi, the revolutions in psychiatric care, Fiat's 1980s labor troubles, and the Sicilian Mafia trials of the early 1990s. Running concurrent with these specific events is a broader social history, as a working-class generation steeped in war is succeeded by its offspring. The new generation will be roiled by social and political conflict, yet in time will be wholly recognizable as the affluent, self-actualized middle class.
Insomuch as there are narrative cheats, and disparate threads that cross conveniently, Giordana counters some of the story's inherent artificiality with scenes that simply show the characters interacting ordinarily ... making a pot of coffee, visiting a new home. While such scenes might impart some necessary plot information ... perhaps we see that a child is now a teen-ager ... they chiefly reinforce the familiarity of these characters, both to each other and to the viewers.
In its last hour, Best of Youth winds down, albeit companionably; middle age doesn't hold the manic emotional crises of youth. Indeed, the film's concluding segments also mark a return of the sun-burnished cinematography and picture-postcard locales of its first hour. The film ends on the gentlest of notes, at once hopeful, satisfying and bittersweet, and yet I was taken aback by the emotional punch it still carried. While families are inevitability marked by tragedies, there are joys as well, and none more so than the bonds that hold the extended Carati family intact. In Italian, with subtitles.