The annotated family album as social history, or vice versa, The Best of Youth is another thick spine on the top shelf of Italian cine-novels. Covering nearly 40 years in a remarkably compact six hours, Marco Tullio Giordana’s fleet-footed marathon seeks a country’s whole equation among the intellectual middle-class Caratis of Rome while keeping to the tempos of family routine and reunion. Showing at Film Forum in two parts, the movie has the addictive episodic intimacy of great TV. (Indeed, it was originally intended for the small screen: The state network RAI commissioned The Best of Youth, rejected the final product as too rarefied, then changed its mind after the film won plaudits at Cannes in 2003.)
Founded on a 600-page script (by Sandro Petraglia and Stefano Rulli) and some 240 sets, The Best of Youth derives its formidable energies from the same yin-yang sibling dynamic as its direct antecedents: Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers and Gianni Amelio’s The Way We Laughed. Beaming, jocular Nicola (Luigi Lo Cascio) and sensitive, tightly coiled Matteo (Alessio Boni, who bears a striking resemblance to the young Clint Eastwood), born a year apart, are university students when we meet them in 1966. Matteo volunteers at a clinic for the mentally ill, where he encounters Giorgia (Jasmine Trinca), an obvious victim of botched electroshock treatment; with his brother’s help, Matteo tries and fails to return Giorgia to her rural relations. While The Best of Youth hardly delivers any Bellocchio-style smackdowns to the cult of the family—if anything, the film idealizes blood ties via the Caratis—it does recognize how unusually lucky Nicola and Matteo (and their two sisters) are in their easeful kinship during the excruciating moment when Giorgia’s father smiles nervously and tells her it’s time to go back to the hospital.
Giorgia’s withdrawal from and reabsorption into institutionalized care is The Best of Youth‘s defining event: the last chapter of a dual bildungsroman. Shamed and hardened by his fledgling act of samaritan protest, Matteo throws up his hands and enlists in the army; he later lands jobs as a police photographer—his crime-scene snaps a grisly parody of his youthful shutterbug enthusiasms—and as a suspect-stomping cop. Nicola, typically, is at once unscathed and proactive. He gets bearded and naked with hippies in Norway, marries the student agitator Giulia (the forbidding Sonia Bergamasco, who evokes Monica Vitti as android), and becomes a progressive psychiatrist who campaigns on behalf of the mentally ill—essentially co-opting Matteo’s doomed mercy mission.
The Best of Youth‘s approach to history is both head-on and sidelong, variously enfolding the tumultuous protests and terrorist activity of the ’70s, the 1992 Palermo massacre, and assorted World Cup agonies and ecstasies. Players join the Red Brigades and lose their jobs to industrial “reorganization,” as well as have secret babies. Perhaps by virtue of being conceived for a domestic audience, the film shrugs off the bulky exposition of most historical epics (the non-Italian viewer might have some light Googling to do after the screenings). But Giordana ably shoulders his influences, paying homage to Rocco in his lengthy staging of a decisive New Year’s Eve party and its blood-freezing aftermath. As in Visconti and Amelio’s brotherly disquisitions, a submerged yet implacable fury simmers throughout, but here the violence is finally turned inward.