Friday, July 8, 2011

Viva Italia!

Film: La Meglio Gioventu (The Best of Youth)
Format: DVDs from NetFlix on various players.

When I finally decide to watch one of the longer films remaining to me, I sometimes despair. Part of this is a latent hangover from the fact that these epic films seem to be exclusively subtitled. I don’t typically mind a subtitled film, but when they are of extreme length, it can get tiresome. Part of this is the same trepidation anyone feels when setting off on a large project. And part of it is admittedly fear that I may hate the film, a pain that is greatly compounded when it’s the length of three typical films. I’ve had the snot bored out of my by shorter films like Dog Star Man and more recently The Color of Pomegranates; I can’t imagine having to sit through the equivalent four times in a row. Actually, I can—I did survive Les Vampires, after all.

Regardless, I went into La Meglio Gioventu (The Best of Youth) with high hopes if only because almost everyone I know familiar with the film likes it. But still, six hours is a long time to sit watching anything.

La Meglio Gioventu tells the story of the Carati family, focusing mostly on the two brothers, Nicola (Luigi Lo Cascio) and Matteo (Alessio Boni). In a sense, it follows an earlier Italian tradition of films like Il Gattopardo that follow a segment of history by showing the story of a single family existing in those times. In this case, the story is a modern one, showing Italian history through the lives of the Caratis from 1966 to the film’s present of 2003.

Typically, this is where I would provide a rough synopsis of the film, but for something of this length with so many characters and events, we’d be here until next week if I did that. I’ll give some of the basics, because I think that’s all I can do.

We learn some critical information about our two main characters almost immediately. Matteo is considered the bright one who will be successful while Nicola studies constantly. During their oral exams, though, it is Nicola who aces his tests while Matteo walks out. Matteo is working in an asylum taking inmates for walks. One in particular, Giorgia (Jasmine Trinca), catches his attention for several reasons—she seems helpless, is attractive, and is young. When Matteo sees evidence that she is being abused by the asylum, he and Nicola break her out. On this trip, Nicola proves to be the one who is far more empathetic. When Giorgia is captured by the police and returned to the asylum, the brothers split up. Matteo joins the army while Nicola spends time as a lumberjack and considers studying psychiatry to help people like Giorgia.

The two are reunited when the Arno floods Florence. At the same time, Nicola meets Giulia (Sonia Bergamasco), who is also helping with the clean up. The two become an item, and Nicola resumes his studies. Giulia becomes involved in radical politics, and as they become closer, Giulia finds herself involved with the communist Red Brigade. Even having a daughter with Nicola doesn’t quell her desire to violently change the world.

So while Nicola contends with a life partner who seems more involved with changing the world through violent overthrown than with changing a diaper, Matteo deals with his own anger issues as a member of the police—and in many ways Giulia’s opposite. And through all of this, the patriarch of the Carati clan is dealing with cancer. And this takes us through just part of the first half of the film.

La Meglio Gioventu succeeds in a number of important ways. First, and most important, the film is filled with realistic and engaging characters. These are people we want to spend time with and whose lives are more than merely a setting for the history going on around them. Instead, the history serves as a backdrop for their lives as they unfold. Of all the characters, my favorite is the father, Angelo (Andrea Tidona). He’s a genuine character, funny, and dedicated to his children.

What I really like here is that unlike most movies, there is no real climax to the film. This more than anything is what makes this film feel so realistic. Just as in our own lives we have a series of events rather than rising action and denouement, so we have the same thing here. While there certainly are high points and low points, a given high point isn’t followed by a happily ever after but just another day. Even the uplift ending is not truly an ending, but simply another event in life as life goes on.

I really enjoyed this film a lot not because of the tremendous cinematography or the beautiful Italian countryside (although the cinematography is great and the Italian countryside is beautiful). I didn’t enjoy it because it was exciting and filled with danger and stunts, because it isn’t. I enjoyed it because it was real, realistic, and marvelous. Hell of a film, and it honestly felt like it was two hours shorter than its actual length.

Why to watch La Meglio Gioventu: It approaches reality in how its characters live, react, and exist in a real world.
Why not to watch: Investing six hours in the lives of the Caratis means six hours out of your own.


  1. I just checked this one off (and my goodness, it's a long one to check off) and, well, I really enjoyed it. I know, I'm just as shocked as the next guy. It's so lovely and low key and genuine and optimistic. Not constantly optimistic, but it has the aura of hope to it. I really got behind both Matteo and Nicola, and seeing as how I stuck this one out and saw it in one day, in practically one sitting, both Matteo and Nicola made me laugh and cry several times that day. The scene at the end with the two of them on that country path made me gasp and cry and smile all at once.

    Like you, I think I was despairing a little before seeing this because of its length, but I needn't have. Unlike you, I had heard NOTHING about this one prior to watching it.

    1. Surprise, surprise, huh? An epic that's actually worth watching and really getting involved in.

  2. Huh. Looks like Siobhan and I are paralleling each other in some of the movies we've seen recently.

    Knowing this was actually a TV miniseries and not a movie (why is it in a best MOVIES book again?) I was expecting something more on the order of regular "endings" or cliffhangers, but I only saw a couple of those. Things blended together well.

    I liked it and was figuring I would give it three stars, but the multiple heart-tugging endings, even though I knew they were coming, still were effective on me, and I gave it four stars.

    My one real complaint is that I felt the female mental patient was by far the most interesting character in the first 45 minutes of the movie...then they forget about her for an hour and a half. Even in the reality of the miniseries Nicola was a psychiatric doctor for years and he never once thought of trying to find her? I actually would have liked to have seen a lot more of her story. Not that I wanted the whole thing to be longer; they could have sacrificed some of the parts of other stories.