Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Best of Youth: In the Fullness of Time

Alessio Boni as Matteo Carati in The Best of Youth. (Photo: IMDB)

Note: This review contains spoilers for The Best of Youth.

The Best of Youth (La meglio gioventù) was shot as a miniseries for Italian television, broadcast in 2003 and released in North America two years later in two parts, each a little over three hours in length. That’s the way to see it – if you can’t watch it all in a single sitting – because you want to be able to keep all the details in your head, as you can when you’ve got a novel going. And that’s what The Best of Youth is really like: a long novel that expands in your mind as you move through it and that wraps itself around you so that by the end you feel you know the characters the way you know the members of your own family and your closest friends. The material is an epic: the setting is Italy from 1966 to 2003, and the characters interact against the turbulent social and political landscape of one-third of a century. Yet the writers, Sandro Petraglia and Stefano Rulli, and the director, Marco Tullio Giordana, approach it with extraordinary intimacy. Considering the length of the picture and of the period it portrays, it has a surprisingly compact cast of characters, and though the narrative sometimes leaps ahead several years, and regularly stretches back and forth across the country (even occasionally stepping outside it), when you look for literary comparisons you’re more likely to come up with Chekhov than with Tolstoy.


The protagonists are two Roman brothers, Matteo (Alessio Boni) and Nicola Carati (Luigi Lo Cascio), college-age sons, when the movie begins, of a successful merchant (Andrea Tidona) and an elementary-school teacher (Adriana Asti, who has the same bright eyes and complex air of melancholy wisdom she exhibited in Bertolucci’s Before the Revolution four decades earlier). They’ve promised themselves a trip to Norway with friends as a prize for surviving their final exams. But at his Italian lit oral Matteo, restless and brooding and prone to unexplained outbursts of anger, senses the condescension and disapproval of his professor and stalks out of the room, throwing away his university career. He has a part-time job as a caregiver for Giorgia (Jasmine Trinca), a patient at a local psychiatric hospital. He doesn’t possess the patience for it – their first excursion outside the ward ends up in a shouting match – but he certainly has the compassion. When he finds out that she’s been subjected to electro-shock treatments, still legal in Italy at this time, he sneaks her out of the hospital, showing up to meet his brother, on the day they’re meat to go on vacation, with her in tow. So he and Nicola arrange to catch up with their friends at the border and set off to reunite Giorgia with her father in Ravenna. The escapade is a disaster: her papa doesn’t want her back, and when she wanders into a café, some soldiers, discovering she has no papers, cart her off, and the brothers are helpless to intervene. Matteo feels so miserable and guilty that he leaves Nicola to take the trip to Norway alone.

When Matteo boards the train back to Rome, leaving his furious brother to pick up the pieces of his own journey, their lives take dramatically different turns. Nicola has an archetypal sixties experience in Norway, falling in with some hippies, getting factory work when he runs out of money, living for a while with a Norwegian woman, while Matteo joins the army. It’s as if he were seeking some official outlet for his anger and equally as if he were punishing himself by choosing a life unsuited to him in every conceivable way. The brothers’ paths don’t cross again until both wind up in Florence in the wake of a flood, Nicola as a volunteer rescuing library books and Matteo with his unit. And though Nicola missed his friends, Carlo (Fabrizio Gifuni) and Berto (Giovanni Scifoni), at the border, they surface in Florence, too, like thousands of other young people who heed the call to help out in a time of dire need. That’s also where Nicola meets Giulia (Sonia Bergamasco), a math student who enchants him by uncovering a piano, unloaded with other furniture in the crowded street, and playing Ravel. It’s a magical moment, a romantic, when-the-world-was-young moment. Nicola follows her back to Turin and moves in with her. They live activist lives while he studies to become a psychiatrist and, irrevocably affected by his memory of Giorgia, and very much the son of Adriana, his liberal teacher mother, he devotes himself to more open-ended – and open-hearted – ideas about how to heal the psychically sick, working with the victims of shock therapy to help them articulate their grievances at the trial of a callous clinic director. The brothers meet again in Turin when Matteo, now a cop, is called in among reinforcements to put down the student revolutionaries. And once again in Milan, where he takes a post at a police precinct and Nicola arrives as part of a government initiative to close down the old-fashioned mental wards that have abused patients for decades. At one them he finds Giorgia herself, after all these years.

Left to right: Jasmine Trinca, Luigi Lo Cascio, and Alessio Boni in The Best of Youth. (Photo: IMDB)

The disparate paths the two brothers take don’t make the movie schematic; the point isn’t that one takes the left fork and the other the right. If you wanted to locate the real foils in the story, they wouldn’t be Nicola and Matteo, but Matteo and Giulia, who quarrel as soon as they meet for the first time, when Nicola brings his brother home to dinner. And they embody such extremes – the young woman who detests those in power and those she sees as protecting that power, abjuring the very thought of compromise, and the cop who has seen his closest comrade (Paolo Bonanni) paralyzed as a result of a beating by a revolutionary – that we can’t support either of their points of view. Ironically, though, they’re more nearly linked than any other two characters in the movie. As it goes on, Matteo and Giulia both drive themselves away from the people who love them and into private hells. Matteo is estranged from his family, even after his father is struck with cancer, even when he moves back to Rome. When a young photographer, Mirella (Maya Sansa), falls in love with him, he holds her at bay, using his brother’s name as a kind of shield so she won’t learn his true identity, standing her up for a date, then pushing her away when she finds out who he really is and seeks him at the station house. True to form, he circles these people he cares about, but he can’t connect with them: he drives to his parents’ house and sees his mother helping his infirm father down the street, but he wheels away without stopping; he shows up at a family gathering on New Year’s Eve but makes an excuse to leave again almost immediately; he calls Mirella but hangs up when he gets her machine. As for Giulia, she gives birth to Nicola’s daughter, Sara, but motherhood doesn’t ground her. She gets more and more deeply involved in the revolution, walking out, finally, on them and joining the Red Brigades, where she’s trained as an assassin. But when she’s given her first assignment, it’s to kill Carlo – now highly placed in the Bank of Italy and married to Nicola’s kid sister, Francesca (Valentina Carnelutti). Giulia breaks down and warns Francesca; Carlo survives, but Giulia goes to prison. And Matteo, with an inevitability we’ve been resisting so furiously that we want to cry out in horror and protest, throws himself off the balcony of his apartment.

When he loses Giulia and his brother, Nicola blames himself. “I could have stopped them,” he insists. “I loved them both, but I wasn’t capable of imprisoning them with this love. It was my idea of freedom. But what kind of freedom is death?” His brother and his lover represent the limitations of Nicola’s healing powers. They work on Giorgia, whom he restores to life, and on the young people he ends up working with, but the dreadful irony is that the two people he loves most in the world are beyond his help. He goes to see Giulia in prison and asks her to marry him; she refuses and tells him never to return. Remembering his father’s advice back in the days when he and Giulia were living in Turin, that he should get her to play the piano because it will bring her peace, he sends sheet music to her cell (the note that accompanies it says, “Something for you to read”); she sends it back. She won’t permit herself the joy that music accords her, any more than Matteo could allow himself the balm of Mirella’s love. No one can ever penetrate the interior cell Matteo has locked himself up in. And the only one who can save Giulia is her daughter Sara (Camilla FIlippi), now grown up with a fiancé of her own and a career that suddenly seems poignantly perfect, for her and for this movie – restoration.

The movie is full of echoes that sometimes hit you immediately, sometimes only later when you’re running it back through your head. The last lesson Adriana teaches her pupils – before her grief over her son’s suicide drives her to walk out of the school forever – is focused on the same poet Matteo defended, to the disdain of his professor, at his oral exam. When Sara goes to Florence to see her mother, who’s living there after being released from jail, Giordana’s camera pauses momentarily on the plaque commemorating the young people who came to the city from all over Italy to offer their assistance after the flood of 1966. When Giorgia finally finds the courage, at Nicola’s urging, to move out on her own, leaving her last clinic home behind her, he reminds her that she’s following through on the dead Matteo’s impulse from all those years ago; he calls it Matteo’s gift to her. There’s a deeply affecting motif involving photographs – another set of echoes. The first time Mirella meets Matteo, in a waterfront Milanese café, she snaps his picture; years later, it shows up in an exhibition, under the title “Matteo When He Was Nicola,” and Nicola happens upon it. It leads him to Mirella, a woman he’s never met before, now living in Sicily, her homeland, where she returned after Matteo’s suicide; it’s the photo that leads him to the discovery that he has a nephew, and Adriana to the overwhelming knowledge that she has a living memory of her dead son. She brings Mirella the childhood photographs of Matteo she can’t bear to look at anymore, so that her grandson, Andrea, can have them – and, with Mirella’s gentle coaxing, she’s able to sit down and share them with her. And, in the finale, Andrea (Riccardo Scamarcio), now the age his father was in the movie’s first section, takes his girlfriend to Norway, completing the trip his father wasn’t able to make.

It must be clear by now that The Best of Youth – a title that, of course, in the second half expands to include not only the Carati brothers but also their children – is an overpowering emotional experience. Scenes from it come back to you years after you’ve seen it, like the one where, after Matteo’s death, Adriana, peering into the apartment he’s never let her see, comments wonderingly at the quantity of books and then hurls them into the air as if they were somehow responsible for his fate, keeping him behind a wall that she couldn’t pierce. Or the moment when Giulia, at first reluctant, eventually looks at the daughter Nicola has brought to see her in prison and her face cracks into an immense, involuntary smile. Or the scene almost at the end when Giordana brings Matteo back into the movie in the most unpredictable way. (This is when the movie truly touches greatness.) The performances – all of them, including Lida Vitale as the oldest Carati sibling, Giovanna (who becomes a judge and courageously pursues the prosecution of Mafiosi in the face of great personal danger), and Claudio Gioè as Vitale, a friend of Nicola’s leftist youth in Turin who stays a friend for life – are superb, though I don’t think that word can cover adequately the depth and breadth of what six of the actors pull off in these six hours and six minutes: Alessio Boni, Luigi Lo Cascio, Sonia Bergamasco, Jasmine Trinca, Maya Sansa and the sublime Adriana Asti. The movie is brilliant about familial relationships, brilliant about the intellectual camaraderie of youth and the ways in which it can cling for a lifetime. It’s shattering and inspiring. I think it’s the greatest movie since the millennium.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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