Every family is its own epic, filled with tragedies, disappointments and moments of beauty that allow people to carry on.
Sadness waits in the wings in almost every scene of the lovely, life-affirming Italian melodrama The Best of Youth. The six-hour, two-part film skips across the decades, from 1966 to the present, in the life of one middle-class Italian family, the Caratis.
The film was adapted from an Italian miniseries, and anyone who sees the engrossing first half will probably have a hard time resisting the siren song of the film's second half, which is in many ways far better. By Part Two, the characters grow into richer entities and some of the soapy backstory and moderately goofy period details of the '60s and '70s fade from view.
Like the anti-Godfather, The Best of Youth's multigeneration Italian dynasty is defined by a streak of morality and restraint that extends not only to its inner workings, but to its relationship with the world. While many family dramas tend to be insular, stewing over the ups and downs in their members' lives, The Best of Youth recognizes the social building block of family and how its principles play out in the world.
The film follows one of the freakish truths of family: that despite the same parents and upbringings, siblings can seem like residents of two unique realities.
The Best of Youth probably overstates that point in its first half as the Carati brothers, Nicola (Luigi Lo Cascio) and Matteo (Alessio Boni), come of age in the tumultuous '60s. Matteo joins the army and eventually becomes a police officer, billy-clubbing the longhairs who demonstrate against the Man in the streets of Turin, including university student Nicola, a movie-ready hippy, complete with caveman facial hair, a radical girlfriend, and a life-defining backpack trek through exotic lands.
Nicola and Matteo's standard oil-and-water opposition would be annoying if director Marco Tullio Giordana and his fine, sympathetic leads didn't also find a way to redeem that clichéd juxtaposition. Matteo isn't just some straight-edge law-and-order nut, but someone who finds order for his chaotic frame of mind in the discipline of the army, and who is deeply troubled by the world's many injustices. And Nicola is not so different, embarking on his own concerned citizenship in his career as a psychiatrist and advocate for abused mental patients.
Nicola and Matteo and the people who surround them fight for change, with both good and bad results. Their eldest sister is a lawyer who battles corporate corruption, and the mother of Nicola's child, the volatile Giulia (Sonia Bergamasco), is a former student revolutionary-turned-Red Brigade terrorist.
What the film affirms is that a society is built from the ground up, from the codes of conduct of its individual members and the families that produce new generations.
The Best of Youth uses the circumstances of the Carati family to point out the complicated politics of contemporary Italy, marred by labor unrest, routine corruption and complicit silence in the face of mob violence.
Though it covers a huge span of time, The Best of Youth profits from recognizing that being comprehensive is impossible. Like other well-built melodramas, The Best of Youth operates from the knowledge that what is unsaid is often more significant and emotionally gripping for audiences than what is said. The Caratis are bound as much in grief as they are in happiness, and The Best of Youth finds a way to reveal that bittersweet reality with consistently engaging results.
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