Recommending a movie to someone can be a tricky game. How do you begin your pitch? Do you start with the plot, a synopsis? The emotions it all made you feel? Some exciting or intriguing trivia? For cinephiles, the sharing of movies is one of the great pleasures in life, and recommending them can become almost as potent a joy as the viewing experience itself. But the question still remains: how do you begin?
To find an answer, it might perhaps be instructive to look at things from the opposite angle, i.e. how do you not recommend a movie to someone? A warning would seem to be one example of an odd way to start.
‘Hey, you should definitely check out Citizen Kane, you know. Just be careful, though — it is in black and white.’ Doesn’t sound right, does it? If it’s a great movie, why would its colour palette matter?
It’s in that spirit that I’m going to mention the most-repeated fact about The Best of Youth first: yes, it is 6 hours long; and no, that shouldn’t deter you in the slightest. Aside from the occasional need to shift your seating position, you will not feel the time pass at all.
Directed by Marco Tullio Giordana and written by Sandro Petraglia and Stefano Rulli, The Best of Youth (La meglio gioventù) is a movie that originally aired on Italian television as a four-part miniseries. It was then presented in its theatrical form at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival where it picked up the Un Certain Regard award. To try and pigeonhole it into a genre seems perverse, but for the sake of clarity we could call it a sweeping drama of family and national politics. It is also, quite frankly, a small miracle of movie-making that took this reviewer to such a rarefied emotional place that two personal epochs now exist: pre-Best of Youth, and post-Best of Youth.
Spanning four decades from 1966 through to 2003, the movie primarily follows two brothers, Nicola and Matteo Carati (Luigi Lo Cascio and Alessio Boni) as they grow and develop from youth to adulthood. Though they serve as our main protagonists, the ambitious narrative folds in a cast of additional characters in the shape of the brothers’ family, as well as an ever-expanding series of friends and lovers, each of whom are so richly drawn so as to be deserving of an entire conventional movie by themselves. The script The Best of Youth is a shining example of consistency: characters make decisions that align with what we know about them, and actions lead to consequence, even if the two are sometimes years or decades apart.
As the story begins we are introduced to a youthful Nicola and Matteo Carati. They are not your typical film archetypes, instead proving to be already fully realised human beings. Both are studious but lively; outgoing yet scholarly; handsome without being conceited. Nicola, soulful and endlessly empathetic is studying to be a doctor. Matteo, the more brooding of the two, seems less sure of his path, though his passion for philosophy and literature is plain to see; as, too, is his ability to flare up violently without much warning. The brothers share a passion for righting perceived injustices, and one of the early key incidents of the plot is when they both conspire to spring a girl called Giorgia from a local mental institution where Matteo is working once Matteo discovers signs of electroshock-related mistreatment. Giorgia, played with wonderful nuance and understatement by Jasmine Trinca, never once falls into the trap of becoming a two-dimensional plot device. It is not spoiling anything to say that she becomes a recurring character in the film, whose parallel-running arc is just as satisfying to see as anyone else’s. Through Giorgia — and later Nicola, whose medical specialisation is catalysed by his and Matteo’s interactions with her — the movie explores one of its many themes: that of the evolving scientific understanding of mental health and the attendant institutional treatments of it in Italy, as well driven individuals like Nicola’s pivotal roles in driving these changes. Matteo, too, is marked by his formative meeting with Giorgia, although it is emblematic of the distinction between the two brothers that he, unlike Nicola, never lets us see how the experience may have exactly touched him.
As the years roll by, and Nicola and Matteo repeatedly drift apart and back together, two constants remains: their unquestioning love for each other, and Matteo’s inability to let Nicola, or anyone else, get close to him to him emotionally. Eternal credit goes to the film — and Alessio Boni’s performance — that Matteo never devolves into a dull cipher. Indeed, though we follow him for significant portions of the decades’ long journey, by the end we can say that we know him as well as anyone else — for better and for worse. It is a heartbreaking and engrossing portrayal of a person grappling with internal demons that refuse to let him be happy.
Nicola’s open face and nature provide a compelling contrast to his brother. As the movie progresses the years of love, loss, joy, grief, and rage all come to be writ large on his face and reflected in his brown eyes. The Best of Youth will make you feel these years as if they were your own. It would do an immense disservice to the film to reveal more than the bare minimum about its plot (don’t watch any trailers for it), but in its wonderfully epic-yet-intimate canvas it finds room for love, travel, adventure, strife, death, marriage, birth, and love again. On top of that it manages to tie all of these smaller human stories into the unfolding history of a nation, and the movie realises its goal of painting a picture of the Italian state as it was in the latter half of the 20th century. It folds into its story strikes, floods, the counterculture, riots, the armed forces, the police, and the resurgence of the Mafia — all the while foregrounding its characters against this backdrop and refracting that story through them in a naturalistic, almost languid way. The film is not interested in making A Statement. The background breathes as much as the characters, and we come to see just how intertwined the evolution of a country can be with the individuals who make it up. It would be operatic if it wasn’t so devoid of flashy hysterics or overt sentimentalisation.
Though The Best of Youth’s TV heritage is easy to see — it is not the most cinematic creation you’ll witness — it is gorgeous to look at. Marco Tullio Giordana frames his Italian landscapes with apparent love, and the multiple locations visited throughout the years look and feel distinct and unique. Each and every performer could be marked for special consideration. As the camera follows these people through their lives it often lingers on their faces and body language as they react to events both good and bad. They look as people do when reacting in real life. You’ll have seen these expressions before. You will believe them every time and you will laugh and cry along with them.
Of special note is the role of women in this film. Our two main protagonists may be the Carati brothers, but the women characters we meet along the way are treated with as much respect and written with as much depth as any of the men. In too many otherwise great works of art this is often unfortunately not the case, but the women of this movie shine.
The Best Of Youth is one of the most powerful experiences I’ve ever had with cinema, or indeed any other medium. The emotional resonance I felt after watching it rivals my feelings about The Before Trilogy. Sitting through this movie is akin to living it; by the end the people in it feel like old friends, and their memories have taken up residence alongside yours. Watching their stories unfold as they come into contact with the full enormity of what life can bring is a truly special spectacle, and the movie does a thing that only the rarest of creations can do: it changes how you see the world. There are layers beyond the routine and the banal that we sometimes forget to see the older we get. The Best Of Youth realigns those perceptions. By reflecting life, it enriches it.
The Best of Youth is available to order online on DVD from Amazon.