The Best of Youth
2003Director: Marco Tullio Giordano
Cast: Luigi Lo Cascio, Allesio Boni, Adriana Asti
any view cinema as an escape from the confines of ordinary life; as a showcase for the marvels of special effects and dazzling stunts. People will pack theaters to watch human beings defy the laws of science, to witness unbelievable carnage and destruction without real world consequences. Not that there is anything wrong with that type of viewing—it shows us a world we could never otherwise see and for some brings a sense of adventure to an otherwise uneventful day (Sin City is a particularly brilliant example of this).
Yet, there are those who, like me, turn to cinema not as an escape from reality, but as an examination of it. For us cinema is at its best when it focuses on the smallest of details. An epic film isn’t necessarily a film that takes us worlds away to places we could never visit, with people we will never meet. A film could just as easily be deemed epic by the nature and depth to which it examines the elaborate layers of the human psyche.
Take Marco Tullio Giordano’s The Best of Youth, which is an epic in the sense that it offers a comprehensive exploration of the complex relationships between members of an Italian family. The film, which begins in 1960s Rome and spans four decades, sets its situations up with extreme patience, allowing the audience to feel out each new direction the lives of the characters take. I hesitate to mention the film’s length as I suspect many will resist the notion of viewing a film nearly six hours long. However, for those brave enough to venture in, The Best of Youth will surely offer them something rarely seen in motion pictures. For some, even the six hours will seem all too brief for this material.
This is not merely a film, but a lifetime. To walk into it is to experience someone else's existence, to understand their culture, to know each member of their circle as intimately as if you were a part of it. In such a way it does serve as an escape from one’s own life, but not into a world of fantasy. Instead it allows the opportunity to face time through the eyes of another, appealing both to our escapist desires and our thirst for genuine human emotion.
"Get your damn hand off me, hippie..."
We witness this world through the eyes of the Carati family, namely the two brothers Matteo and Nicola. Nicola plays the part of the good son; not as brilliant-minded as Matteo, but far more level-headed when it comes to finding direction in life. Matteo plays the outsider in the family. Ruled by his unpredictable emotions, his life is at times dangerously spontaneous. I realize those two descriptions sound as if spawned from tired clichés, but trust me; the film manages to avoid most, if not all, of the obvious pitfalls.
Early in the film, Matteo finds part time work helping out at a nearby mental institution. There his duties include walking the patients around the streets of Rome. He becomes enamored with a particular patient named Giorgia. He tells his brother that he senses intelligence in her eyes and they both begin to worry when they suspect that she is being abused by the doctors.
One evening, Matteo sneaks into the institution and helps Giorgia escape. He then meets up with Nicola who is about to head out on a road trip with his friends. Matteo explains the situation to Nicola and the brothers agree that the best thing to do is bring her back to her father. They abandon their friends and head out with the young woman only to discover that her father wants her institutionalized. When they try to take her elsewhere, the law intervenes and Giorgia disappears from their lives.
”And if you'll turn your head, you'll notice a huge volcano ready to erupt and kill us all...”
This experience leaves a mark on both of them, prompting Nicola to pursue a career in psychology and Matteo to unexpectedly join the army and eventually the police force. From there the story progresses through the years. At times we see each of their lives from separate locations where they struggle to find that feeling taken from them when Giorgia disappeared. Sometimes events in Italian history bring the brothers together in alliance (the floods in Florence); at other times as members of opposing factions (the riots in Turin).
Relating anything more concerning the plot, however, would be to reduce the film to a series of staged events, destroying that very quality that makes it so special. In a way the film transcends criticism. I could write on and on about its brilliant direction, its compassion for its characters, the way the actors age in a completely believable manner; but none of my rambling could ever capture precisely what this film represents.
All I can offer is the general impression left on me by the film, and I’d be damned if this isn’t the best of the year. The only way to truly understand what it accomplishes is to see it yourself, and at 6 hours length, sadly, that’s the amount of investment I don’t expect a vast majority of people to take. For many, better films will arrive before the year’s end, but as good as they may be, none could ever hope to surpass The Best of Youth for its emotional intricacies.