Ah, story! Is there any more profound pleasure than to sink deep into one, to risk its dangers, to admire its heroes, to feel its anguish, to love its women, to hate its villains, to ache from its struggles? That pleasure is available in a large dose as the AFI Silver brings in the huge Italian tapestry "The Best of Youth," which, over the course of almost six hours, chronicles 40 years in the lives (and deaths) of a family.
Directed by Marco Tullio Giordana, the film, originally a miniseries for Italian TV, follows the tangled vectors of the Carati brothers, two bright, handsome young men from Turin, over four decades of political and emotional turmoil. And although history intrudes -- the flood at Florence in the '60s, the Red Brigades' Terror in the '70s, the war against the Mafia in Sicily in the '80s -- the movie isn't so much about history as set against it.
Working from what must have been a Tolstoyan script by Sandro Petraglia and Stefano Rulli, the story opens in 1964, with both boys in college under the watch of their doting father. Giordana labors intensely to capture the similarity and the differences between the two in nuanced ways. Matteo, for example, is discovered alone, locked in a room, studying furiously, and he brusquely brushes off his father's request to help with a chore, claiming the importance of a looming exam. But we understand instantly that there's some pathology in Matteo (Alessio Boni), not only in his self-enforced solitude but also in his extreme discomfort with his father's open fondness. Emotions, we will learn, are not Matteo's strong points.
But when the proud papa enters the next room, he finds the outgoing Nicola (Luigi Lo Cascio) studying with two buddies, Carlo and Vitale, and Nicola jumps to the task of helping his dad, quickly enlisting his friends. Thus are patterns graven in stone: the loner Matteo, who rejects every human approach, and the sociable Nicola, warm and winning but perhaps too eager to please. Yet at the same time, we understand that the two, so different, love each other passionately.
The plot of the film then almost apes the design of the double helix. Each boy will chart his own way, yet they will swoop together periodically for encounters with sibling and family. Meanwhile, given the leisure of his elongated time frame, Giordana fills us in on their parents, their friends, their lovers, their children, all of whom grow and change, leave and return, succeed and fail, live and in some cases die over the years.
The initial narrative follows as the reluctant and hostile Matteo destroys himself at college by disputing a pompous professor, then kidnapping a young woman, Giorgia (Jasmine Trinca), and engaging his brother in a mad scheme to return her to her father. Giorgia brings in one of the movie's primary concerns, which is mental illness. She is an institutionalized schizophrenic for whom Matteo has been caring as a part-time job. Upset to discover burn marks from the electroshock therapy the institution had been using, he seeks to liberate her. She's a great character, beautiful, trusting, sad and innocent all at once, and of course Nicola also becomes deeply engaged in her plight. But if you think this is going to be some kind of sentimental weeper about the sane in love with the insane, think again.
Giordana is too tough-minded to fall for either sentiment or melodrama; he keeps his story relentlessly realistic, and the brothers' exposure to the young woman will change and charge each young man for life. The experience motivates Nicola, naturally empathetic, to become a psychiatrist, dedicated to bettering the lot of the mentally ill. Matteo, shattered by the pain and guilt he feels at her loss, will seal himself off even more: He becomes a soldier, then a riot policeman, then a cop. He tries to hide his emotional fragility behind a facade of pure macho force. He knows that if he lets himself feel anything, it will be too much.
Originally shot on videotape, the story's transfer to filmstock leaves some of the imagery looking washed out, more's the shame since Giordana has a flair for the Italian landscape and loves to capture the beauty of soft hills and ripened valleys.
A little inconsistency in the storyline also afflicts the project: the initial story, of the sick girl and the two youths who try to save her, is gripping; as is the story of Nicola's wooing of his bride, whom he meets during the flooding of Florence.
But this or that hour is less gripping, as the long account of the death of the father of the two, and the emergence, toward the end, of their mother as such a strong character.
But you have to give Giordana great credit for his neutrality: this is neither a leftist nor a rightest screed; he doesn't see causes or economic oppression or heroic police action but people caught up in compelling if confusing circumstances. Nobody is guilty because nobody is innocent; people are just people. You can complain, I suppose, that the Carati family and its friends are a little too conveniently situated with relation to the play of history over the years: What are the odds that one brother would marry a woman who becomes a Red Brigade terrorist and one brother would be assigned to a squad tasked with hunting Red Brigade terrorists? And what are the odds that a female Red Brigade terrorist would be tasked with murdering the best friend of her doting husband?
In many respects, the fate of the Caratis bucks the odds; but Giordana keeps it so fiercely realistic that one can easily make peace with the issue of probability and simply enjoy -- or mourn -- a family that seems as real as your own relatives.
The Best of Youth (Part 1) and The Best of Youth (Part 2) (183 minutes each, at the AFI Silver) are rated R for emotional intensity and some nudity. Note: Some screenings are back-to-back; others are separate. Tonight's screening is Part 1 only. Each part requires a separate admission.