Near the opening of director Marco Tullio Giordana's magnificently seductive epic The Best of Youth (which opens Friday, May 13, at the Varsity), in 1966 Rome, Nicola Carati's professor gives him an A in his premed classes—and some provocative advice. "If you have any ambition," he says, "leave this country. It's a beautiful country, with dinosaurs in charge—a country about to be destroyed." Then he adds with the gentlest irony: "Of course, I am one of the dinosaurs who will have to go."
His words aren't simply prophetic, they're a graceful way to meet one of the two central members of the Carati family: the ebullient, half-shy Nicola (Luigi Lo Cascio), who with his brooding brother, Matteo (Alessio Boni), is at the heart of this warm, enveloping story. We will follow them—and their parents, two sisters, and two closest friends—across the next 37 years, as Italy, endures strikes, a nearly biblical flood, and the Red Brigades and Mafia assassinations, then gradually sheds its past and moves into the New Europe.
In a project originally made for Italian television (hence its six-hour length), Giordana's hallmark is the deep, almost humble humanism of his characters, his immaculate eye for casting, and the ease and lack of pretension of his storytelling. You slide into the story with the almost voluptuous wriggle with which you succumb to a brilliantly textured novel. Who says TV miniseries are a bad thing? The form gives Giordana luxury not available to most filmmakers, and he rewards each character with unhurried attention. We benefit, too, and SIFF-goers awarded Youth the audience prize last year.
Youth's canvas is vast: It soon leaves the Carati family's modest apartment in Rome for the fjords and forests of Norway, then to industrial Turin in the north before it dips down to the remote island of Stromboli, as Nicola and Matteo follow very different paths into the world. (Yes, Stromboli, one of Youth's many seemingly glancing references to the landmarks of Italian film history. Like the music, which uses Georges Delarue's theme from Jules and Jim as freely as "The House of the Rising Sun," it's a quick, potent shortcut to our own memories of these decades.)
Nicola, who has his father's optimism, carries that strength into a practice of psychiatry, especially the rights of the institutionalized insane and the movement called "anti-psychiatry." The magnetic Matteo, who has an almost pathological fervor about right and wrong, has an equal humanism. But when he fails to rescue a fragile young psychiatric patient, he abruptly and quixotically joins the army. He will transfer to the police later, during Italy's violent '70s, and remain the story's most deeply debatable enigma.
The brothers are reunited during one of the film's astonishing sequences, the cataclysmic floods of 1968, which brought young people to Florence from all over Italy (and the world) to help salvage its incalculable artistic legacy. Giordano captures that moment precisely: the tents, the muck, the selflessness and the spirit that unified army recruits, hippies, and aristocrats in a common effort.
The disaster changes Nicola's life as well, when he falls in love with the remarkable Giulia (Sonia Bergamasco), a piano student drawn to the rescue efforts out of equally passionate values. Soon after the birth of their daughter, Giulia's deepening sense of political outrage leads her into the fringes of the Red Brigades, a fateful decision that affects the entire Carati clan.
The film's screenwriters, Sandro Petraglia and Stefano Rulli, were both part of that army of students in Florence in 1968. Remarkably, even in maturity, they seem to have clung to that era's idealism. They may also have created a first in the annals of miniseries: a sweeping, character-drenched drama without a single deathbed scene. Over these 37 years, we necessarily lose one character or another, but the writers have found honest, inventive ways to deliver the news as a poignant grace note, underscoring the film's—and life's—constant forward flow.
Finally, there is Youth's inclusiveness, which keeps the Carati family circle full, even as major new characters are folded into it. When a character drifts off-screen for a while, he or she never seems forgotten; there's always the feeling that these lives are continuing at the margins. Some emerge during political crises: Giovanna, the oldest sister, comes back into focus as a young magistrate in Sicily, when judicial assassinations are almost a given. When the brothers' pivotal friend, the leonine Carlo, is off the scene, it's to finish his master's degree in England before joining the Bank of Italy, another dangerous occupation during the 1970s, the country's "leaden years" (the Cosa Nostra's time of power). Happily, it's never possible to lose track of the story's linchpins, the Caratis' father (Andrea Tidona) and, especially, Adriana Asti's glowing matriarch, whose influence can be seen across the decades, and beyond.
As with everything of value, there's an urgency to The Best of Youth's limited two-week run. Don't be intimidated by its length or be lazy and wait for the DVD. Don't dawdle or wait until friends have seen it, just go.
The film is divided into two three-hour installments. Part I runs Fri., May 13– Sun., May 22. Part II runs Fri., May 20–Thurs., May 26. See movie times page for further details or www.landmarktheatres.com.