The Best of Youth, the must-see movie of 2005, was held over for three months at the Balboa Theater and played to sold-out audiences at repertory theaters across the country. By all accounts the film was a real tearjerker that had viewers weeping inconsolably into their tissues. Who would have thought that a six-hour Italian family melodrama originally shot for television would get American audiences in such a tizzy? But then again, look at the success of The Godfather trilogy and the cult status of The Sopranos. I have to be honest, except for vintage Douglas Sirk Technicolor gems from the fifties, I am not a fan of the heavy-handed, nostalgia-laden family melodrama. I loathe the veneer of nostalgia that permeates most films and books about the past and the implication that a less corrupt and just civil society once existed. This cotton candy fairytale land is a figment of our collective imagination and born out of a desire to rewrite the nasty bits of history, which still haunt us in the present day.
Given these tendencies, I was faced with an afternoon at the Balboa Theater watching a sweeping family epic with a handful of other people who had missed the first run of the The Best of Youth. The film opens in 1966 with a focus on a middle class family living in Rome. All the characters are slowly introduced as they move through their daily lives. At the center of the film is the story of two brothers Nicola and Matteo, who, despite coming from the same family and being of a similar age, are completely divergent in their approach to life and the world around them. As they finish their exams and head out on a summer trip to the North Cape, their plans are derailed when Matteo attempts to help a young mental patient who is being abused in the asylum where he works.
Matteo tries to reach out to Giorgia, but is immediately frustrated by her lack of response and his temper is raised. Meanwhile his brother uses humor, patience, and respect to get through to her. The experience with Giorgia makes an indelible impression on both of them and sets the course of their lives. It is one of those unexpected, transformative encounters with another human being that causes each brother to drop out in their own way: Nicola travels up north, joins the hippy counter-culture and learns to believe in the beauty of the world; Matteo runs away from the situation with Giorgia, enlists in the military and spends the rest of his life building an impenetrable wall around himself. Through the brothers, the story follows a simple family against the backdrop of postwar Italy, tracing their marriages, deaths, and births through several generations and countless political struggles.
The director and screenwriter excel at creating engaging and challenging characters that capture the empathy of the audience. These are not perfect human beings, but people struggling to survive in a world that is changing rapidly and spinning out of control around them. In the midst of significant historic shifts, it is the small details and seemingly insignificant moments that have a profound impact. A snap shot on the deck of a ferryboat, a short conversation with a stranger, and the power of stories, poetry and books. The director interweaves these minor details and gives them the weight in history and memory that they deserve. Perhaps there is something about duration. Spending hours with the characters, not just the fictional years, that creates a special relationship for the viewer. The filmmaker capitalizes on the time we spend with Matteo, Nicola, and the rest, developing a certain history and connection to the characters.
Despite my initial resistance, I was easily caught up in the beauty and sweetness of the story and shared several teary-eyed moments and subdued sniffles with the audience during the course of the film. But along with the moments of pure joy and assured directing, there was an utter dependence on big bombastic scenes that threw me completely out of the story and gave me that sinking, "I am watching actors saying lines in a movie" feeling.
There is a painful to watch scene with the mother after a particularly heartbreaking event has transpired. She sits in a classroom and stares listlessly into space, unable to hear students recite their homework. Her eyes and face are dead and no glimmer of recognition crosses her face as they speak. I can imagine reading this scene in a script and understanding its intention, but in actuality the performance is so over the top that it should have been cut. Instead the director follows up with a sequence in an empty courtyard with a camera spinning round and round, in an attempt to capture the old woman's confusion and loss of reality. Its as if the director didn't know when the fine line between drama and hysteria was crossed. This heavy-handed approach also tainted several plot points that seemed artificial and made-up.
Within the context of an already heady mix of family melodrama of epic proportions, these missteps weighed down the second half of the film and made me squirm in my seat. Because the characters were incredibly well developed in the first half, there were countless scenes that should have been cut out of the second half of the film. I think The Best of Youth is an engaging film and the characters draw the viewer into an intimate world of family life, politcs and love that is irresistible. But the film's overt emotional ploys and penchant for nostalgia needs to be paired down. Less is more. My advice: don't do the marathon viewing. See the film in two parts, it will make you far less impatient and tolerant of the second half of the film.