Italian for Beginners

The restless youth of TheBest of Youth.

Why are American plays, movies, and TV shows so inept at weaving together the strands of the political and the personal? Maybe it’s because—to borrow the title of an incisive E.J. Dionne book—Americans hate politics. Or maybe it’s because we prefer—and have always preferred, at least since the days of Fenimore Cooper—our sagas to focus on loners, mavericks, outcasts, people standing up to “the system.” But as that late counterweight to libertarianism, Arthur Miller, endlessly reminded us, we are social creatures—interdependent and responsible in even our smallest actions for the welfare of all. Too bad that’s a pinko heresy in a land of vigilantes and winners who take all.

The Best of Youth (Miramax), Marco Tullia Giordana’s six-hour, made-for-Italian-television saga of two brothers and their extended family, is one of those projects American filmmakers occasionally attempt but never bring off. It’s a story of evolving individuals and momentous social changes and of how those two elements interact. But there’s no one-to-one correspondence between the personal and the political—i.e., it’s not 1967 and the hero is a pot-smoking hippie listening to Hendrix and then it’s 1982 and he’s an investment banker. The characters’ attitudes and fashions do shift with the times, but the developments are subtle and unpredictable. More important, these characters struggle to transform society; they have too much integrity to let society transform them.

The brothers are Nicola and Matteo, played by Luigi Lo Cascio and Alessio Boni. It’s the early ‘60s, and it’s the sharp-cheekboned heartthrob Matteo who seems the more interesting at first. He’s an “A” student who feels injustice more deeply than anyone else, and he develops a fixation on a lovely institutionalized girl named Giorgia (Jasmine Trinka). In good ‘60s romantic fashion, he ends up springing her from a mental hospital, where she’s on a steady diet of electroshock, and tries to bring her to her father in Ravenna. But Matteo fails Giorgia and ultimately abandons his brother and two pals, who’ve planned a post-graduation trip to the north—the way north, maybe even the North Pole. In despair, he joins the army and then the police force, while his brother Nicola, the medical student, becomes immersed in the activist counterculture.

No, it’s not what you’re thinking: brother against brother, one a Fascist and the other a Communist hippie. It’s nothing so clichéd or allegorical or extreme in the manner of Bertolucci’s 1900. Both brothers remain friends, if distant ones, and both hold true to their idealism. By the fourth hour, Nicola is a psychiatrist who successfully fights the harsh conditions and outright torture of mental patients, while Matteo is none too successfully battling the entrenched culture of crime in Sicily and growing more and more emotionally crippled. He meets a beautiful Sicilian photographer (Maya Sansa), who flips over him, but every time he’s tempted to make a move, his inner demons chew him up. At one point, the characters invoke Chekhov, and Mirella is one of those Chekhovian heroines who can’t get her men to make the leap from awkward pleasantries to desperately longed-for kisses and commitment.

Over the course of the film’s 40 years, Italy is depicted as a beautiful but intractably corrupt place, yet the characters continue to work toward changing it. One of the brothers’ pals, Carlo (Fabrizio Gifuni), marries into the family and becomes a banker—but one who works toward an economic system that is transparent instead of cloaked. At the other end of the political spectrum, Nicola has a daughter with a beautiful woman named Giulia (Sonia Bergamasco), who drifts into Communism, then Maoism, and finally goes underground with the violent Red Brigade. She’s working to change the system from without—way, way without.

Six hours, you think—wow, that sounds endless. But The Best of Youth doesn’t have a boring millisecond. It isn’t an art film, with longueurs; it’s a mini-series with the sweep of a classic novel, with tons of plot. Not that Giordana (or the screenwriters, Sandro Petraglia and Stefano Rulli) skim the surface. The scenes are short but penetrating; the tiniest exchanges can explode into epiphanies; and the five-year leaps are amazingly fluid. There is a kind of forthright lyricism in the way Giordana handles the landscape and the characters’ yearning for connection, meaning, and the high spirits of their youth. It’s that yearning that holds the episodic narrative together—along with a recurring, plangent musical motif that all but makes the screen shiver.

The suspense at times is killing, and there is one terrible shock. But there’s also a fair bit of sentiment. By the sixth hour of The Best of Youth, Giordana has proven that he can grapple with the harshest reality, and it’s hard to begrudge him his conclusive optimism—especially since we’ve come to love these people. No, the later stages of aging aren’t especially convincing: Gray make-up and white shoe polish in the hair are no substitute for thickened, saggy features, jowls, and bellies. But at least the characters don’t stagger on wearing rubber appliances and with synthetic hair coming out of their ears and nostrils.

Congratulations to Miramax for distributing The Best of Youth theatrically in the United States, even if the company went through its usual Hamlet-like series of postponements and reschedulings. The film will be screened at art houses in two parts—and I think you should try to see both in one day. Failing that, you can eventually catch it on DVD—it was made for Italian television and won’t suffer too much. This is the sort of movie you’ll recommend to friends and they’ll go, “Six hours! Are you nuts?” and then call you up and thank you in the middle of the night. You don’t need to thank me, though. Like Matteo and Nicola, I’m just doing my bit to make the world a better place.