The Best of Youth (Marco Tullio Giordana, 2003)

January 12, 2012

Raiding my writing archives once more. This review was originally written in July 2009 for a long abandoned former blog of mine.

With its six hour running time and focus on nearly 40 years in the lives of its protagonists, the Italian saga of family, friendship, love, and life in general that is The Best of Youth has something of a reputation as a contemporary cinematic behemoth, alongside Béla Tarr’s even longer Sátántangó; films where the epic running time tends to take precedence in the mind of a potential viewer over the content, making them perhaps seem like little more than challenges for the supposed “hardcore” film watcher, and possible chores to sit through. I cannot speak for Tarr’s film, having not seen it, but such a description is thankfully an inappropriate one for Giordana’s film.

The feel and unhurried scope of the film brings to mind a great novel, rather than a typical cinematic outing. Instead of rushing through the events of the nearly 40 year period, the film’s proceedings are paced impeccably, allowing room for extensive, brilliantly realised characterisation alongside the factual and fictional occurrences that shape the lives of the Carati brothers, Matteo (Alessio Boni) and Nicola (Luigi Lo Cascio), as well as those closest to them. All the performances have a distinct air of authenticity about them, which, in addition to the screenplay, helps to prevent any sort of overly melodramatic tone from making an appearance in the depiction of the numerous feuds, romances and personal revelations that occur. The important social and political points in the story are also not hammered home in a blunt fashion by the writing, and their role in the shaping of the characters is successfully put across. What we are provided with is a completely natural weaving through the course of two lives.

In the conceiving of such a lengthy film, there is always the risk that the time will end up being devoted to unengaging protagonists, rendering the final product an awful bore. This is certainly not the case here with the completely engrossing Matteo and Nicola. The events surrounding an intended vacation in the summer of 1966 result in personal epiphanies for the two men, sending them on radically different journeys. Matteo, the more repressed and mysterious of the two, is a deeply tormented figure. Constantly baffled and outraged by the world around him, he has great difficulty finding suitable outlets for venting his intense frustration, and this proves to be the driving force behind the numerous downfalls of his life. The path he takes involves stints in the military and police force, exposing him to the numerous atrocities taking place in the country that tug at his emotions and also end up hurting those he cares about.

Nicola’s story is not comprised of solitude similar to that of his brother’s, and he is a less confusing individual, but it is equally interesting. He attempts to take on an existence of normalcy, after getting involved with radicalism in his student days, and finally finds purposes for his life, that of a doctor and a family man. However, he still struggles to find complacency in love and his line of work, with similar social and political issues as found in his brother’s storyline ultimately affecting his relationships and moral compass. With Matteo having become something of a lone wolf, Nicola is the one left to deal with the brunt of the hardships that affect the Carati family.

The naturalist feel, and the depth of the many relationships presented, result in The Best of Youth‘s status as a sublime example of humanist cinema, enhanced by its complete lack of sentimentality. Every moment of romance, anguish, joy, and life affirmation is superbly realised and touching throughout. There is one particular painful event a good way in that changes the dynamic of the remaining two hours or so quite a bit. If I have one complaint about the film, it is that some of the scenes in this final stretch, such as those focusing on conversations between Nicola and his two long time friends as one sets up a home for himself, feel rather insubstantial and ever so slightly unsatisfying compared to the tragedy that has come not long before and that still to come. They definitely fit the story, and hardly ruin the film, but I just had a longing for the flow of the conclusion to be focused on the core plot threads left to be resolved. I do realise that this is a rather silly complaint. Perhaps I just have an uncontrollable urge to search for faults since I rarely encounter cinema this rewarding.

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