Were The Best of Youth to air on national television, as it did in its original incarnation in Italy two years ago, I can assure you that everyone would be talking about it for weeks. As it is, I can promise you this: Every lucky moviegoer who commits to the six hours this magnificent Italian drama requires — ingestible in two discrete three-hour installments — won’t be able to stop thinking about gentle, empathetic Nicola Carati (Luigi Lo Cascio) and his broodier, more tempestuous sibling, Matteo (Alessio Boni), the two brothers whose lives come to embody nearly four decades of modern Italian history in one grandly engrossing experience.
Have I convinced you yet to invest the time? La Meglio Gioventù, as director Marco Tullio Giordana calls his prizewinning narrative masterpiece, begins in Rome, in 1966, when the Carati boys — two of four children born into a middle-class family — are just launching their adult lives. Nicola wants to become a doctor (to which end a kindly professor urges the young man to move away because ”Italy is a dying, useless country”); Matteo has more longings — he’s a passionate reader of books — and fewer plans. Nicola identifies with liberalism and enlightenment; Matteo becomes a soldier, then a cop. And as the lives and fortunes of the Carati clan wax and wane, expand and intertwine, their intimate struggles, joys, and accommodations reflect the rhythms of societal life on a larger scale: The 1966 Florence floods, Italy’s 1982 World Cup championship, the terrorism of the Red Brigades, and the violence of Mafia murders share equal, gracefully apportioned weight with personal history. (The geography shifts too, from Rome to Florence to Turin to Palermo to the Tuscan countryside, with a magical stop in Norway.)
Like a great novel from a more expansive bygone age, The Best of Youth is full of big thoughts; like a great soap opera, it’s also full of sharp plot turns, vibrant characters, and great talk. It is, in short, the best of cinema.