The Best of Youth

May, 2005, Drama

Last week, the arts section of the New York Times carried an article on this year's upcoming Tony awards with the following headline: "Telling a Story vs. Storytelling". The author suggested, (with a bit of Times condescension) that noteworthy dramas on Broadway usually take one of two tacks, either telling a great story or using the stage to make a point--to wit, saying something important. Despite the oversimplification, this distinction actually works pretty well in categorizing movies too; good films often content themselves with simply telling a great story, (Master & Commander, for example) while others impress with their gravity of their message, (Lilya 4-Ever). Great films--Grapes of Wrath, The Searchers, On The Waterfront, etc.-- do both.

Family sagas don't often meet this double test, (although the first two entries in The Godfather trilogy come to mind, along with Orsen Welles' brutally edited Magnificent Ambersons) so it's an unalloyed pleasure to report that this sweeping examination of recent Italian history by director Marco Tullio Giordana, a 55 year old director whose earlier work has focused extensively on subjects most familiar to his countrymen, is as close to a masterpiece as anything you're likely to see this year--or in any year. In 4 hours and 40 minutes of running time, (mercifully shown here in New York in two parts on successive days) the director and his splendid cast examine the central events in Italy's public life over the nearly 4 decades which ended in 2003, when the film was first broadcast on television there. 

Winner of 11 "Davids", (The Italian equivalent of the Oscars) Best Of Youth provides just about the most rewarding time you'll ever spend in a movie theater. Given the impressive list of awards it has already garnered, the film will undoubtedly find its way onto DVD and VHS, so if you must see it in that format, don't plan on spreading your viewing out too much; the characters in this film succeed in getting under your skin, (and into your heart) so quickly and thoroughly you won't be able to resist watching the entire film in very short order.

The Best of Youth traces the lives and fortunes of the Caratis, an upper middle class family of six. The pater familiaris is a small businessman, his wife an elementary school teacher. They have four children, two boys and two girls; the film begins in 1966 as the broodingly handsome Nicola and his younger brother Matteo take semester-ending university exams before setting off on a summer jaunt to Norway that won't be fully realized for two more generations. Older sister Adrianna and younger sibling Francesca, best friends Carlo and Vitali, assorted lovers and spouses are all interwoven into the struggle for self-definition which confronts these brothers in vastly different ways. Nicola, brilliant but tormented by personal failings he's incapable of adequately expressing, drifts away from his studies, enters the military and winds up a member of the national police force. The gentler Matteo concentrates his medical studies on psychiatry, marries a brooding beauty, (who'll drift into the Red Brigade) while he devotes his professional life to addressing the country's forgotten ones--mental patients callously, often brutally, served by Italy's scandalously deficient public mental health system. Adrianna, a strong-willed lawyer, divorces her husband and becomes a judge;  sweet and longsuffering Francesca marries one of Matteo's closest friends whose work in Italy's economic ministry often requires police protection. Through impulsive love affairs and marriages, the arrival of children, the long illness of their father and the touchingly beautiful aging of their mother, one or more members of this extended family will participate in the flood relief efforts required in Florence in the early '70's, the student riots and terrorism that swept the industrialized cities of Italy shortly thereafter and the dangerous Mafia trials in Sicily which cost so many members of the judiciary their lives. Through it all, the Caratis remain bonded, despite long separations, conflicting loyalties and often-angry confrontations. National events beyond their control will come and go; the family stubbornly survives, remaining the focal point of their fascinatingly disparate lives.

All of this wouldn't convey the intimacy of the film nor accomplish its astounding impact without a stellar script and an actors' ensemble capable of infusing these individuals with such life-like vitality that it virtually bursts from the screen. In scene after scene, the love of life and reaffirming affection these characters posses for one another makes them come alive; you don't just want to know this family--you'd like to be a part of it.

The national events which play out in the background of this complex storyline are introduced with great subtly; the decline of Italy's unions, the country's reluctant but inevitable drift into the global economy, corruption in high places, the frightening reach of ideologically based terrorism and organized crime--all are dealt with matter-of-factly as they impact the experiences of individual people. I can't think of another film that puts such a human face on large, important social issues. 

It might be tempting to see the family Carati as symbolic, but that would be a mistake; while the audience can make its own judgments about whether the choices made by these flawlessly developed characters would be better or worse had they not been enmeshed in the events which played out during the last 4 decades of their country's history, the individuals in this epic tale are--first and foremost--interesting in their own right and not  abstract expressions of the larger forces at work in late 20th century western society. The Best of Youth is early Preston Sturges, not early Ingmar Bergman.

Move over Coppola; here's an Italian family that deserves even more attention and accolades than your far more violent Corleones. 

The Verdict? See it, see it, see it!


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