Smart and sprawling

Italian miniseries makes a great movie

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Best of Youth would seem to have three strikes against it as far as the general moviegoer is concerned: It’s six hours long, it was shot on digital video and it’s in Italian. And yet it’s a wholly accessible film: a family saga in the same vein as an American miniseries, and novelistic in scope with a wide range of characters, emotional incidents and intriguing plot complications. For its run at the Maple Art Theatre, the film will be divided into two three-hour segments — and it’s hard to imagine how anyone could resist coming back for the second part.

Originally filmed as a miniseries for Italian television, Youth was judged as “too aristocratic,” a euphemistic way of saying it was too intelligent and therefore not commercial enough to generate the necessary ad revenue (a vaguely reassuring indication that even in sophisticated Europe the tube tends to play to the lowest common denominator). Seemingly a lost cause, the producers managed to arrange a screening at Cannes. It won an award, and was then deemed fit to be released theatrically in Italy.

Directed by Marco Tullio Giordana, the film opens with the Animals’ mood-setting version of “The House of the Rising Sun” and covers the span of 37 years, from 1966 to 2003, focusing on two brothers who are very similar in temperament but destined to live very different lives. The story begins as they’re taking their final exams, an event that establishes each character’s personality. Nicola (Luigi Lo Cascio) is studying medicine; his professor tells him that he’s earning a higher grade because he’s highly sympathetic, an important characteristic for a doctor. Indeed, Nicola goes through the movie practically beaming empathy. Matteo (Alessio Boni), a student of literature, is also sensitive but in a moody, impulsive way — during his exam he suddenly tells his professor that he doesn’t want to be there anymore and walks out, effectively ending, or at least derailing, his academic career.

Taking a job at an asylum, Matteo decides to liberate one of the schizophrenic patients, a beautiful young girl named Giorgia (Jasmine Trinca) who has burns on her temples from electroshock therapy. This turns out to be a tragic mistake and Matteo, again acting impulsively, runs away and joins the army, a development shocking to his peace-loving brother. After his army stint, Matteo becomes a policeman (albeit an atypical one, spending his off-hours hanging out at the library reading lit classics like Winesburg, Ohio). He specializes in anti-terrorist activity, and is destined to come into conflict with Nicola’s girlfriend, whose leftist tendencies are leading her further into the violent underground.

As for the rest, it’s best not to give away too many plot details, since a large part of the movie’s appeal lies in the constant interest generated by the unanticipated turns of the narrative. The film’s backdrop is a time in Italy’s history that could be called turbulent (as could almost all periods of Italian history), and the Mafia and Red Brigade terrorists play an important part in the fate of the brothers and their family.

Never static, the film even has a travelogue aspect as it moves from cosmopolitan Rome to industrial Turin, from sunny (and dangerous) Sicily to the volcanic island of Stromboli. The last part takes on an increasingly autumnal mood, as beloved characters grow old and die (and one significant character dies before having the chance to grow old), and missed opportunities and life’s compromises pile up. At this point the sentimentality grows a little thick, but it’s earned; we’ve gone through the wringer with these characters, and, after six hours, their pains and joys are palpable.

Best of Youth is essentially a soap opera, but a thoughtful and nuanced one and not a bit “aristocratic.” — 

In Italian with English subtitles. Showing at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111).

Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com.

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