Spanning almost 40 years, from the mid-1960s to the present, this six-hour, two-part Italian epic uses the compelling story of two brothers as a way of telling the recent history of Italy in a way that works as both historical allegory and moving family drama.

The first brother is Matteo (Alessio Boni), a teenager who grows up to become a police officer stationed in Sicily during the Mafia's resurgence, and later in Rome during the heyday of Red Brigade terrorism -- because he likes, as he says, to apply rules. While his character disappears from the saga for a while, a casualty of his own psychic wounds, he reappears at a significant moment of synthesis near the end of a story that, in many ways, is about a country at war with itself. His brother Nicola (Luigi Lo Cascio), in contrast to Matteo's more rigid lawman, grows up to become a psychiatrist, the empathetic healer to Matteo's less flexible -- and psychologically brittle -- enforcer. Above and beyond their roles in any allegory of Italy's schizoid past, however, Nicola and Matteo are, first and foremost, brothers.

Catalyzing the direction each chooses to take in life is Giulia (Jasmine Trinca), a beautiful young patient in a mental institution that the brothers impulsively decide to "rescue" from the electroshock therapy and abuse she has received at the hands of her doctors, planning to return her to her family while en route to a summer vacation in Norway. Things don't work out the way they planned, though, and Nicola and Matteo find themselves suddenly impelled down very different, but ultimately convergent, paths. Convergent, if only in a poetic sense, because the film is ultimately all about coming together in healing.

Deftly, director Marco Tullio Giordana and screenwriters Sandro Petraglia and Stefano Rulli weave milestones major and minor in and out of the story, using as background (and sometimes foreground) important national soccer wins and losses, pop songs, the political protests of the 1960s, the so-called "leaden years" of the 1970s, the infamous great flood of Florence, and other evocative elements to tell their story. Unlike some American miniseries, however, that think they get away with re-creating the flavors of bygone decades by throwing in more fashion and pop-culture touchstones than you can shake a stick at -- Look, Ma! Hula Hoops, Beach Boys music! -- "The Best of Youth" never works in its references gratuitously. The filmmakers know that there's more to history than headlines and hairstyles.

Hence the emphasis on people over props.

And this focus on Nicola and Matteo's extended family as a metaphor for the multiple rifts and fissures of a nation works beautifully: Nicola participates in student protests, for instance, while Matteo cracks down on them; Nicola's common-law wife (Sonia Bergamasco) turns from nonviolent protest to terrorism, eventually targeting Nicola's banker best friend (Fabrizio Gifuni) for assassination, and bringing Nicola, like Unabomber Ted Kaczynski's brother David, to a dramatic crisis of conscience

Its point is this: That every nation, like a family, is made up of many people who are often at odds with one another, but that ultimately, we are all one.

THE BEST OF YOUTH (R, 366 minutes, in two parts) -- Contains obscenity, sexuality, brief nudity, drug references and some violence. In Italian with subtitles. At the AFI Silver Theatre.

Alessio Boni, left, and Luigi Lo Cascio as Italian brothers in the six-hour "The Best of Youth" at AFI Silver Theatre.