A return to form: The Best of Youth recalls Italian cinema's glory days
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 7 June 2005)

How strange it seems that an Italian film running an outlandish length, six hours, should arrive here as if on a mission to remind us that movies can be enthralling and enriching. And remind us also how a single story can speak with passion and intelligence about love, families and a troubled nation, confident we will see that these things are connected.

The Best of Youth, directed by Marco Tullio Giordana, recalls the time when Italy was a reliable source of cinematic treasure. From the 1940s to the 1980s, Italian directors such as De Sica, Fellini, Antonioni and Visconti were among the great masters. But when they retired or died, Italian movies mainly ceased to matter outside of Italy. For 15 years we have known only a few isolated successes -- Life Is Beautiful, Cinema Paradiso, Mediterraneo, The Postman.

Now, by one of the magnificent accidents of movie history, Giordana has made an epic that revives (at least for the moment) all the enthusiasm of older audiences while introducing the young to what was once a glorious tradition.

The Best of Youth was originally made (this is the accidental part) as a television miniseries.

It proved so good, however, that it soon moved into theatres. It cruised successfully around the festival circuit in 2003, then played theatres and television in several European countries in 2004. It arrived this spring in North American theatres, in two three-hour parts, shown separately.

Unfortunately, The Best of Youth has been sentenced to carry the worst English title I've ever seen attached to a great movie. It's the translation of a line from a poem by a renowned director, Pier Paolo Pasolini, but that doesn't help. Because, in truth, the film isn't just about youth, or the best of anything.

It's about youth, middle age, old age and childhood; and sometimes it's about the worst.

Giordana wants not only to bring us to the theatre and keep us in our seats, but also to send us home with a slightly enlarged idea of human possibility and a wary knowledge that there are some people we don't and can't understand. He wants also to convey a deepened sense of history, in this case the history of Italy from 1966 to 1993.

The screenplay begins in the crowded Roman apartment of the Carati family -- mother, father, two boys, two girls. Adriana Asti, the matriarch, brings to the film two of the most eloquent eyes in cinema and five decades of experience in films directed by people like Visconti and De Sica. As the young male Caratis, who will carry much of the story, Giordana casts two prodigiously talented and attractive actors. Luigi Lo Cascio, playing Nicola, resembles a handsome Dustin Hoffman. Alessio Boni, playing Matteo, suggests an intelligent Brad Pitt.

We watch them grow old, procreate and change. Meanwhile, Italian history rushes on, sometimes dragging them with it. In 1966 the Arno swells its banks and pours tons of mud into great Renaissance libraries; three of our characters are among the many young people who come to save the books and their heritage. In Sicily the drive against the Mafia leads to the murder of judges and then public demonstrations against crime bosses; three of our characters are there. One woman surrenders to the callow and murderous ideologies of the 1960s and vanishes one night into the secret underground of the Red Brigades; she saves the world by making her own part of it miserable. At one point we know it's 1982 because some museum guards, clustered around a radio, burst into hysterical cheers when Italy wins the World Cup in soccer.

As in many an epic novel, from Middlemarch to Buddenbrooks, the characters often produce a shock of recognition in the audience. Matteo, whose self-destructive righteousness leaves him isolated and wretched, reminds me of a several people I've known over the years, people who have nothing in common except their refusal to consider their own nature.

He's the brother everyone worries about, and rightly. He expresses no emotion except rage. A talented student, he abruptly quits university and joins first the army, then the police, explaining to no one what he's doing. He cuts off his family, stirred by a bitterness he can't begin to articulate. His older sister, speaking for the whole family, says to him: "What did we do to you to deserve this behaviour?" He doesn't know any better than she does. His self-ignorance fuels his terrifying self-destructive outbursts and pushes much of the story. The calm and sensible Nicola becomes a psychiatrist and a crusader for humane treatment of the mentally ill, but the sickness of the brother he loves remains forever beyond his understanding.

As it happens, American television's recent attempt at an epic, Empire Falls, directed by Fred Schepisi for HBO as a two-part miniseries, showed up around the same time as The Best of Youth. The comparison turned out to be devastating. Empire Falls came across as a puerile collection of cliches delivered by a parade of movie stars with nothing better to do. Drunken Paul Newman pesters his earnest but ineffective son, Ed Harris, a desperate fellow who has to deal simultaneously with his mean-mouthed ex-wife, Helen Hunt and the poisonous matriarch of their declining Maine mill town, Joanne Woodward, a Cruella De Vil who destroys humans rather than dalmatians.

The Best of Youth, unlike Empire Falls, deals with an entire society, warts and all. A white-collar criminal, psychologically evaluated by Nicola, blames his troubles on "the Italy our fathers made," shifting his own corruption a generation back. In medical school a professor tells Nicola that if he wants a future he should leave for Britain, France or America. "Italy is a beautiful country," he says, "but it is a place to die, run by dinosaurs." Then why doesn't the professor leave? "I'm one of the dinosaurs."

Nevertheless, Nicola stays, and so does his brother-in-law, a government banking official threatened with assassination by the Red Brigades. He knows that leaving Italy will give a victory to the forces of darkness. Like several other characters in The Best of Youth, he makes his crucial decisions with thoughtful care and moral seriousness. Right or wrong, he doesn't let life roll over him. That tone, that attitude, give this saga an exceptional place in the recent history of cinema.

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