Every so often a piece of art, be it a painting or a sculpture or a song, comes along that reminds you just how good art can be. Such is the case with Marco Tullio Giordana’s masterpiece La Meglio gioventù, a six-hour film about the nature of love, loss, and living itself. Following Nicola Carati (Luigi Lo Cascio) and his brother Matteo (Alessio Boni) over the course of 40 years, Giordana explores their lives, their relationships, and the experiences that take them from starry-eyed optimists about to embark on an exploration of Europe to an adulthood unlike anything they could have ever imagined.
The plot is too big and varied to easily summarize here, not to mention that one of the film’s joys is seeing the varied twists and turns it takes, so suffice it to say that it follows these two brothers as their lives take vastly different paths. Nicola falls in love, has a child, and becomes a psychiatrist, while Matteo seemingly out of nowhere joins the army and later becomes a cop, despite his disregard for rules and order.
From there, Giordana weaves a tapestry of family, friends, lovers, and Italy herself, creating a world so rich and fully-realized that the audience feels as if they are somehow part of it. Characters come and go and the dynamics of relationships change over time, and by the end of the film you’re so invested in these characters and their lives, that you wish the film would go on forever. The film’s six-hour running time, which seems daunting at the start, at the end doesn’t feel nearly long enough. And in a world where 90-minute movies seem desperate for ways to fill the time, this is a truly amazing accomplishment.
So how is it that La Meglio gioventù achieves this herculean task? Partly by embracing the luxury that the runtime affords. Giordana spends the first hour or so establishing his two main characters and setting a pace and a style that slowly and quietly draws the audience in with the confidence that pays off exponentially in the film’s second half.
This is not to say that the first half is by any means boring. Rather, it is clearly building to something bigger than cheap theatrics or the conflict of a single storyline. And by taking the time early on to create a multitude of sympathetic, three-dimensional characters, La Meglio gioventù gives itself a scenario later on where even the smallest moment may be enough to break your heart because it’s so easy to imagine that the Carati family is an extension of your family, so when something happens to them, it feels as if it’s happening to you. It is not impossible to imagine an audience member who feels closer to this family than his own.
Revealing too much of a film like this tends to take away some of it’s impact, so I won’t dwell here on specifics, but it’s worth noting the performance of Luigi Lo Cascio as Nicola. In a film of extraordinary performances, his is clearly the best. With little more than the addition of some gray hairs and wrinkles, he must play a character spanning forty years, from the wild-eyed idealism of his youth, to the heavy heart of middle age. And he’s absolutely fantastic the entire way.
His is not necessarily the most difficult role in the film, but as the lead, he serves as the ballast around which the rest of the characters revolve. Naturally, it isn’t the type of film that shows up in the Oscar discussion, but his performance is on par with the year’s best. It is also worth noting the role Italy plays in the film as more than just a setting, but as an actual character. Several of the film’s key events are triggered by important moments of Italy’s history, some of which are arbitrary and some of which are vital.
The film was originally developed for Italian television and I can only imagine how it must have played differently for people with an intimate knowledge of the history. If it can bring tears to the eyes of an American in his mid-twenties, how much more powerful must it be for an Italian in his sixties?
To call La Meglio gioventù an epic, as most do, is an attempt to reduce it to something manageable, when in reality it transcends the meaning of the word. For beyond the limits of the epic is filmmaking in the grandest sense. It is the territory of Kieslowski and Bergman and Fassbinder, men who created works bigger than a single film and subsequently changed the landscape of film itself. And while La Meglio gioventù is not quite at that level (only a select few are), it is perhaps as close anyone’s gotten in the last ten years. Without question, it is the best film of 2005.
starring: Luigi Lo Cascio, Alessio Boni, Adriana Asti, Sonia Bergamasco, Maya Sansa, and Fabrizio Gifuni
written by: Sandro Petraglia and Stefano Rulli
directed by: Marco Tullio Giordana
R, 366 min, 2003, Italy
 Specifically I’m referring to Kieslowski’s Dekalog (1989) and Trois couleurs (1994), Bergman’s Scener ur ett äktenskap (1973), and Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980).