The Best of Youth
Director: Marco Tullio Giordana
Starring: Luigi Lo Cascio, Alessio Boni
Phew. That’s what I have to say after cannonballing all of this movie in one day. Why do I say “phew?” Two reasons. First of all, the dang thing clocks in at just over six hours. That’s right, I just sat and watched a six hour movie with minimal breaks. Why would you subject yourself to that, you may ask. Good question. The answer is reason number two: this movie has the capacity to pull you in, emotionally, so emerging from it, I feel as though I am surfacing once more to the real world. I have been completely engulfed in the world of The Best of Youth for the past day. Hence “phew.”
The story focuses on the two brothers in the Carati family, Nicola (Lo Cascio) and Matteo (Boni). Nicola isn’t the best student, but he works hard and is good-natured and dreams of becoming a doctor. Matteo is a supremely gifted student, but also highly strung with some anger issues. Right off the bat, we witness Matteo drop out of school and enlist in the army, and later the police force, while Nicola takes off for a backpack trip through Norway on his way to becoming a psychiatrist, an inspiration after he meets a young mental patient Giorgia. The movie starts in the 1960s and follows the brothers’ lives, the lives of their parents, their two sisters, various love interests, and, ultimately, children, through to 2003, all against the backdrop of recent Italian history.
Trying to sum up the plot of this film is an exercise in futility, as so much happens, but at the same time, very little happens. There is no over-arching narrative. There is no one single driving force in the film. Rather, this is a film about life, plain and simple. If ever a film personified John Lennon’s quote, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans,” that film is The Best of Youth. But that’s also the genius of this film: many films that claim to be about someone’s life, or a family’s life, are really about one or two major events in that person’s life. This film is really just a string of episodes (it was originally intended to be a miniseries for Italian television), and it moves fluidly between characters as people move into and out of the lives of Nicola and Matteo.
Luckily for me, the two most fascinating characters in the film were *drumroll* Nicola and Matteo, the two leads. They are brothers, but they are very different. Nicola is very much a nice person. He’s just nice. He’s always sympathetic. He always seems to find friends. He gets breaks in his life because of his personality. And yet he becomes involved in 1960s and 1970s counterculture, which is where he meets his revolutionary girlfriend Giulia. He shows moments of darkness, when life starts to throw too many stones his way. I was invested in Nicola; I wanted to watch what happened to him. It’s very easy to root for Nicola, but he’s also interesting enough to carry a six hour story.
And then there’s Matteo, completely different in temperament but, for me, even more fascinating than his brother. Matteo is an unhappy child. His father doesn’t understand him. His brother loves him, but doesn’t understand him. His girlfriend loves him, but doesn’t understand him. He’s supremely intelligent yet abandons college, preferring a life of rules and enforcing rules. He has anger problems. He gets reprimanded several times for excessive force while working as a cop. And yet, he is very loyal, he loves his family, and a romance he has with aspiring photographer Mirella was one of my favorite portions of the film. He reminded me of a more extreme version of Mr. Rochester, which means that I was pretty much in love with sad, troubled, interesting Matteo.
Edit to add: In the months that have passed since I wrote this review (because that’s how I roll), I have found myself thinking back to The Best of Youth, and specifically, thinking about Matteo. I must say that I just adored Matteo. Over time, I have found myself wondering more and more about him. He brought me joy and pain in The Best of Youth, and yeah, he was easily my favorite character in the film. He was the biggest reason why I was able to stay emotionally invested in this six hour epic (I usually have the attention span of a gnat when a film is longer than two hours), and there was one moment at the end involving Matteo where I literally gasped and clapped my hands over my mouth. For a movie that long to elicit that kind of a reaction, well, that says quite a bit about it. Matteo 4-eva!!!
My favorite story from the myriad of little stories that make up The Best of Youth is the one story that unites Nicola and Matteo, two brothers who spend most of their time living separate lives. It’s also the story that starts the film, the story of mental patient Giorgia. Matteo is assigned to take her for walks at the asylum, but then he breaks her out when it is discovered she is getting electroshock treatment. He and Nicola take her to see her father, but he can’t care for her. Giorgia, played by Jasmine Trinca, is haunting. Both brothers seem drawn to her, and it’s easy to see why. Over the course of the film, Giorgia drifts back into the brothers’ lives every now and then, and every time, you get the sense that she touches something deep in both of them that remains hidden to everyone else. I loved these parts of the film. Frankly, I wanted more Giorgia, but life doesn’t always give you what you want. And, well, that's genius.
For a film of this length, watching it is a huge undertaking. What really helped me see this film in one go was its very strong sense of optimism. It wasn’t a sickly sweet optimism, all cherries and candy and flowers in the sky. Instead, there was a constant feeling of “we will endure whatever life throws our way.” Most of this was reflected through the character of Nicola. There were certainly moments in the film when the tone shifts towards a much darker, more pessimist attitude, but those moments are deserved and necessary. When the characters recover, they start to realize they can and should return to their optimism of before. This meant that this film never beat me over the head with atrocities and downbeat attitudes. That’s important to me if I’m talking about a six hour movie.
Ultimately, the biggest compliment I can pay The Best of Youth is the fact that I never intended to watch it in one day. I was completely intimidated by its six hour running time, obviously, so I had decided to just try to watch one hour of it today, and then spread the rest of it out over the course of the week. But one hour came and went and I wanted to keep going, so I decided to watch two hours. Two hours turned into three hours and I finished disc one. Did I really want to watch disc two on the same day? YES I DID. The biggest compliment I can give this movie is that I *wanted* to watch all six hours on the same day in spite of myself. I wanted to know more about these people, to find out what happened to them.
Arbitrary Rating: 9/10. It’s a bit daunting, and it’s not always gripping, but it’s good and entertaining and touching without ever being saccharine or melodramatic. More than that, it’s effective. It has staying power. If you get involved in Nicola and Matteo’s lives, you will always be a part of their life, and vice versa. I liked it far more than I ever thought I would.