Thursday, June 6, 2013

La Meglio Gioventù (The Best Of Youth) | Marco Tullio Giordana, 2003


The Nitrate Diva is hosting the Italian Film Culture Blogathon, which will run once a week for the entirety of a month. If you're interested, head over to her site here to sign up for a week (or more!) where you will get to contribute your ode to Italian cinema in any way, shape, or form; or just to witness the blogathon's denouement as many great posters will share with us their thoughts on anything Italian film related.

**no spoilers**
Really how much could I spoil from a 6-hour movie?

    For the first week of the blogathon, I decided to review Marco Tullio Giordana's The Best Of Youth. And it's a film I'm damn proud to be reviewing. And damn nervous as well. At 6 hours long, The Best Of Youth showcases one single theme so grand that many people --writers, filmmakers, poets, philosophers, your loved ones, a co-worker, you yourself, you name it-- have tried to encapsulate it in their work. But, the theme of life itself, so complex as it is, is not something that gives itself to being simply bottled in a work of art. It will take a meaning of its own. And it is the true artist that will allow it to do just that, to take root and grow from the seeds he sowed. 

   The maestro Federico Fellini stated "All art is autobiographical; the pearl is the oyster's biography". All art is life. By butchering our work, we are in effect committing suicide. Thankfully, there are those bold movies that decide to tackle the subject of life heads on and interpret it in different ways. Some of those movies transport you to another world. Some of those movies provide laughter. And some of those movies like The Best Of Youth live and let live.

Giorgia and Matteo, two troubled souls
   The film follows the lives of two brothers, Nicola and Matteo Carati, from the years 1966 to 2003. It encompasses their triumphs, their failures, their loves and lack thereof, and the many people that occupy  their world, coming in and out with the tides of time and circumstances. As the film begins, the two brothers are already in their late teens/early 20s. They and their two close friends, Carlo and Berto, are planning a trip to Norway after their final exams. Nicola (who I believe to be the older brother by a year) nails his finals and qualifies to be a doctor. Matteo, apparently the most academically adept brother, fails his finals however when the examiner asks him a question meriting a suggestive answer; when the professor/examiner rejects Matteo's answer (I know right, the douche), Matteo gets up and simply walks out, something that will become a lifelong pattern for him. 

   Matteo works as a logotherapist, somebody who takes mental patients for walks. It is there that he ends up being partnered with Giorgia, a silent girl with a beautiful face but a haunted look in her eyes and a constant furrow in her brows. As Matteo tries to bring Giorgia out of her shell, he discovers marks on her forehead and realizes that she is undergoing electroshock therapy. Matteo sneaks in one night and removes Giorgia from the institution.

    He meets up with his brother and his friends. The two brothers ponder what to do with Giorgia. Carlo and Berto go ahead without them, planning to meet at a specific location in two days. Nicola and Matteo bring Giorgia to her father, but the father threatens to send Giorgia back to the mental institution, resulting in Matteo nearly physically assaulting the father. The three musketeers end up at a cafe where Nicola and Matteo decide to take Giorgia with them to Norway. However, Giorgia's odd habits get her noticed by the police and, refusing to betray her new friends, keeps quiet. She is arrested, effectively ending the furtive daydreams of travels. This single event reverberates through time and becomes the foundation for much of what is to happen to the brothers' lives. 

Nicola on his Norway trip
    I refuse to reveal too much more about the plot. The episode with Giorgia is what really sets every future event in the 6-hour story into motion. It forever shapes who the brothers are or will become. The effects of Giorgia's presence in their lives is noticeable even during the three musketeers' brief time together. While Nicola is more patient with Giorgia, taking time to encourage her to step out of her comfort zone, Matteo is more easily frustrated by Giorgia's distant behavior and sudden temperamental outbursts. Giorgia lives in her own world, in her own mental prison. When her world comes crashing against the brothers' own, everybody's life is set off course. Much as how life is a constant cycle, their worlds will come to meet again. But, by then, they've become different people or rather more extreme versions of themselves, society having already reigned them in. The exuberant best of their youth has given way to three jaded souls who've had to deal with marital problems, children, natural disasters, political turmoil and death. Basically the simple facts of life.

   Nicola is a man who possesses within him enough patience and love to satiate his rescued mental patients, but is unable to equally hold his would-be-wife under his spell. Just as all those years ago his encouraging Giorgia to  step out of her comfort zone to go buy ice cream got her arrested, so too does his love in some way drive his wife out of his and his daughter's life. In a poignant moment in the film, Nicola states that sometimes one has to imprison another person with their love, out of love. Such flowery and poetic language permeates the rest of the film. It is weaved beautifully into the natural acting styles of the performers and is never jarring. Rather, it makes the film real in its simple poetic beauty.

   Matteo's anger problems continue to derail his career. He remains the most elusive character in the film. Though there is pain behind those steely eyes of his, it remains unspoken and continues to remain so even after the film ends. He is unable to relate to anybody around him. Whenever somebody gets too close for his comfort, he ruthlessly kicks them out of his life. In contrast to his former promising academic career, Matteo has become a military man/cop man. He constantly receives transfers due to his violent behavior. When asked by one of his superiors why he did not decline a transfer, he responds that he follows rules and never says no. This is just not the same Matteo who walked out of his exam when a pompous professor rejected his answer. This is not the same Matteo who sneaked a mental patient out of a hospital. While traces of the young Matteo remains, most of him is replaced by somebody who tries to conform to the rules of his vocation while at the same time wanting to follow his own. This cognitive dissonance results in Matteo abusing his power to lash out at criminals. He continues to stand up for the oppressed, but the roundabout way he goes about it undoes any good that could have come out of the situation. He grows more and more hopeless. 

One of Matteo's few truly genuine smiles

    Matteo and Giorgia also seem to be such an odd parallel in the film. As Matteo continues to derail, Giorgia continues to emerge from her inner cell. It is with an additional push from Nicola that she is able to finally experience the beauty of Italy around her and not be caved into her own troubled soul.

   Though the film boasts a big cast of characters --especially towards the end as more from the 1966 generation engender kids-- it is Italy that remains the constant in the film. It is specifically for that reason that I am happy that I chose this film for my first contribution to the Italian Film Culture Blogathon. I got really lucky and struck gold. What is intriguing about this film is that it does not shy away from showing the darker side of Italy. A flood destroys several of Florence's works of art and valuable books. Magistrates and judges are assassinated by explosion when they attempt to sanction the mafia, with Nicola and Matteo's older sister Giovanna being in particular danger. An underground revolutionary group hires people to kill those they deem to be in a position of power, with another character close to the main characters being targeted. During Nicola's final exam, his examining professor tells him to leave Italy if he wants to make a career because Italy, while beautiful, is a place to be destroyed. Damn. 

   The film takes us on an eventually rewarding journey. Italy is trampled by those dark forces, its beauty torn apart as of clothes being torn from a woman who silently endures her suffering and grows stronger.While refusing to romanticize  Italy or make the film overly sentimental, Giordana is proud in showing his country's beauty and power. Little by little, Italy is swathed by those who truly care for the country, her beauty blossoming and her silence becoming a peaceful hum. We see this when several people, dubbed the Mud Angels, come and help with the restoration of Florence. We also see this when Nicola and Matteo's elderly mother goes to Palermo to live with her grandson and his mother. She was living in Rome at the time, which she describes as a cynical place (although she loves it since she's lived there so long). The old woman had trouble going up the steps and never allowed light through the window shutters in her house. When she makes the move to Palermo, the island beauty brushes up on her. Her movements become less physically straining. She explores the island with her grandson, her spirits obviously at an all-time high. The scenes are bathed with light and color, in contrast to when she was living alone in her dark lodging. 

  The message the film gives then is that it does not matter where you are in Italy if you do not have somebody to love and to love you back. Without your loved ones around you, Italy's beauty can easily be overlooked as you retrace back into yourself to deal with your own inner problems. It's not until Giorgia emerges from her inner prison that she can finally be free in Italy and wonder at the country's many fixtures. This message comes across most blatantly in a tragic scene where a character willingly loses everything when all love is shut off, albeit by the character's own volition/prison. 

    Since this is a long piece, for those of you who skipped to this last paragraph, I'll sum it up as such: I love The Best Of Youth. At 6 hours, it did not feel that I'd spent 1/4 of a day watching a movie. The story kept me more than engaged. I became invested in the characters. With the beautiful scenery of different Italian  cities/Norwegian cities comprising a truly stunning work of cinematography and some very naturalistic acting on the part of performers whose work I plan to check out more of, The Best Of Youth becomes not only life, but also a celebration of it. All of life's mysteries, contradictions, evasiveness, treasures whirl and linger across the scenes. When the 6 hours come to an end and the credits start rolling, I came to realize that this wasn't an end. These characters lived and they continue to do so after the credits. Unlike most films that bear happy endings that seem tacked on, The Best Of Youth  ends after nearly 40 years in these characters' lives. It ends right at a time when, while some questions still linger and some conflicts are still very much in effect, every character has found some sort of solace, even if it wasn't the one they sought or we wanted for them. The film opened with an event that forever changed the characters' lives and closed when the shock from the event's subsequent colliding worlds ceased to have an after-effect; when at long last the ripple through time left nothing more but a peaceful surface for reflection; when at long last the characters' lives were back on the right course.


Ludovico Rating

   5 out of 5. This film is a masterpiece. As of now, I can safely say that The Best Of Youth has a definitive place amongst my favorite films of all time. Make some time this weekend and watch it here on Hulu. It will be worth it, I swear. 

  The Best Of Youth is a film that constantly needs revisiting over the years since more life experiences will uncover details that could have been too abstract or totally missed in previous viewings.

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