La meglio gioventù
Release Date: June 22nd, 2003
Duration: 366 mins.
Director: Marco Tullio Giordana
Writer: Sandro Petraglia, Stefano Rulli (Screenplay),
Starring: Luigi Lo Cascio, Alessio Boni, Jasmine Trinca, Adriana Asti, Sonia Bergamasco, Maya Sansa, Lidia Vitale, Fabrizio Gifuni,
The Best of Youth is director Mario Tullio Giodarna’s 2003 film that manages to pack in 40 years of Italian history into six hours of screen time by following three generations of one family. Beautifully lensed and efficiently scripted, it says a lot about how good the acting and directing is that it feels epic yet intimate, that it never strains credibility too much as it charts social changes and that it ensures we care about the internal struggles of a wide cast of characters through the decades.
Split into two three-hour parts, the film follows various members of the middle-class Carati family who seemingly manage to get involved in nearly every significant event experienced by modern Italy from the flooding of Florence in 1966 to the battle against the Red Brigade throughout the 70s and the war against the Mafia in Palermo in the 90s. The narrative propulsion driving viewers to these events is primarily provided by itinerant brothers Nicola (Luigi Lo Cascio) and Matteo (Alessio Boni), both of whom travel around Italy meeting all sorts of people. Younger brother Nicola is the more empathetic one, initially starting as a trainee doctor whose caring bedside manner segues neatly into political revolutionary before he graduates to become a father and a caring psychiatrist battling cynicism. Older brother Matteo goes in totally the opposite direction as he quits being a philosophy student to become a cop contending with darker emotions that signal a death wish. They and other characters seek to effect change for the better in their own ways as they are swept along by the flow of time.
Right from the get-go everyone is efficiently sketched with dialogue and behaviour that ostensibly places them in various competing social classes and philosophical positions but everyone is a complex human alive with ambitions and joy rather than ideologues and the film shows them maturing emotionally under each others influence as they navigate coming to terms with their facticity while participating in society and family and pursuing a hopeful future.
There is an opaqueness to characters which hides inner angst, sensitively brought out by some pitch-perfect acting and direction which allows a glimpse of uncertainty or fear behind the expected Latin hot-bloodedness. The direction focusses on people, their faces in particular, rather than settling purely for poetic visuals and pretty landscape shots. Masterful framing and camera angles as well as Giodarna’s preference for medium shots that segue into close-ups ensure viewers can gaze at the characters and ride the emotional waves the actors project and this works especially well for Luigi Lo Cascio and Alessio Boni as Nicola and Matteo, the former projecting a nicely judged vivacity and reacting to every emotional blow his character experiences with a grace and humanity that audiences will aspire to while the latter’s emotional turbulence provides a hook that keeps the audience wondering just what is going on in the man’s head as he erupts with violence. Indeed, Boni’s portrayal of someone with some sort of death wish which gets subsumed into his work in the state security apparatus is highly compelling as we seek answers to his sometimes irrational behaviour and expect him to come to blows with politically left-leaning characters. The film defies expectations and answers are hard to come by but we watch with increasing tension and sympathy. What burned the brightest for me were his blue eyes that radiated the melancholy and disappointment of someone unable to interact normally with his family and seeing his distance from their love and support is affecting and with his character’s story we come to terms with the idea that life is finite.
The unifying bond of family holds the film together so that while the sheer amount of things threatens to overburden the narrative with action, it never feels too contrived thanks to a diverse set of sympathetic characters and their connection to each other. Fate seemingly sets these characters in motion so they go off in different areas and they come together and we see how everyone loves and lives and burns bright with life but some fade away as they age or some simply choose to leave. We become inured to seeing these people disappear but their impact on the story and the other characters is large and passed on to the next generation, how they have tried to make a difference and succeeded or failed and it hurts when there is a failure and someone is lost but we share the joy of life with those who remain and the film ends on a note of optimism and new beginnings as we welcome in a new generation of the Carati family who will surely get involved in the future of the country and we, as viewers, feel the hope that is born with every possibility. Despite early misgivings with the history-heavy first half but as it zeroed in on the family aspects in the second half, I was moved by the story which is a universal one and told through characters we come to care about.