Thursday, December 28, 2006

Film Review #72: The Best of Youth
2003 (Italy); 2005 (U.S.). Miramax DVD release 2/7/2006 (2 discs, 368 min., color, Italian & French language tracks with English & Spanish subtitles, Region 1).
Director: Marco Tullio Giordana
Screenplay: Sandro Petraglia, Stefano Rulli
Cinematographer: Roberto Forza
Editor: Roberto Missiroli
Producer: Angelo Barbagallo
Cast: Luigi Lo Cascio (Nicola Carati), Alessio Boni (Matteo Carati), Jasmine Trinca (Giorgia), Sonia Bergamasco (Giulia), Maya Sausa (Mirella), Adriana Asti (Adriana Carati), Andrea Tidona (Angelo Carati), Fabrizio Gifuni (Carlo), Lidia Vitale (Giovanna Carati), Valentina Carnelutti (Francesca Carati)

Giordana’s The Best of Youth opens in Rome with rock music – the Animals’ "House of the Rising Sun" – as brothers Nicola and Matteo Carati prepare for college term exams and a summer trek to Norway’s remote North Cape. It’s 1966. After Matteo impulsively liberates the young woman Giorgia from a psychiatric clinic, their trip falls apart, though Nicola goes partway alone. In 2003 Matteo’s son Andrea completes that journey. In vignettes every few years between those dates, the Caratis and those dear to them endure Italy’s late 20th century convulsions. In Italian cinema, implicitly the family = the nation, especially the brothers. The Best of Youth falls firmly within a lineage of films such as Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers (1960), Bertolucci’s 1900 (1976), and Francesco Rosi’s Three Brothers (1981) for its governing plot. And quite early, one scene establishes Giordana’s governing principle. Nicola Carati learns he passed his exam with an A “because of the sympathetic factor.” His medical professor says he means that “in the Greek sense – to share in the pathos.” To be unsympathetic, he tells Nicola, “is the worst thing a doctor can be.”

Giordana apparently thinks that goes for filmmakers too. In a movie covering decades that saw protesting students join labor strikes and clash with police, inflation, radical industrial reorganization, attacks by the terrorist Red Brigades, natural disasters like the winter floods of 1966 in Florence that threatened irreplaceable artistic treasures, the rise of consumerism and mass culture, the first trial in the world that allowed mental patients to testify about shock treatment, political scandals, and the Mafia wars, temptations to go two-dimensional with characters and events, or employ a certain condensed tunnel vision, must be constant.

As just one example of history’s weight, two recent documentaries have acquainted US filmgoers with matters that have been deeply polarizing in Italian life. Marco Turco’s Excellent Cadavers, also available on DVD, opened theatrically in Manhattan last July to warm reviews. Marco Amento’s The Last Godfather: The Ghost of Corleone has toured the festival circuit for the past year. With somewhat different emphases, both use the car-bombing of state prosecutor Giovanni Falcone and four passengers in Sicily on May 23, 1992, as centerpiece and narrative turning point.

It’s hard to overstate the flashpoint importance for contemporary Italy of Falcone’s assassination. Two factors especially served to concentrate public attention and revulsion. Photos of his bloody corpse, head thrown back and still seated in the car wreck, were repeatedly printed and televised, paralleling those of JFK’s assassination and of course the 9/11 plane strikes. Turco’s film highlights Sicilian photojournalist Letizia Battaglia, whose thousands of photos of Mafia doings helped prepare the ground. Then, the widely seen, scorching outrage of Falcone’s bodyguard’s widow, Rosaria Schifani, who insisted that the Cardinal saying their funeral Mass publicly denounce the assassins, goaded comment from the Pope himself.

The resulting upheaval hardly destroyed the Mafia – Amento’s film investigates how Bernardo “Tractor” Provenzano eluded capture for decades – but it did uncover the Mafia’s long-time deal with ruling Christian Democrats to suppress Communists in the south since post-war days. And it led to some legal reforms, which Berlusconi, coming to power in 2001, promptly dismantled. Also in 2001, in October, the influential Aperture Gallery in New York exhibited Battaglia’s Mafia photos, querying what art can do about violence. Battaglia traveled to Manhattan too, expressly in solidarity with New Yorkers after 9/11; her photo book, with its cover portrait of the now-iconic Rosaria Schifani, was reissued here in 2003.

Such background may make watching this film richer and historically more coherent. The Best of Youth includes footage of Schifani, provides one scene that dramatizes how entire congregations recited anti-Mafia pledges at Mass, presents the oldest Carati sibling – Giovanna the magistrate – as having just joined Falcone’s team, and has (as the mother of Matteo’s son) Mirella, a photojournalist living in Palermo and covering these events. At the same time, there is something deeply satisfying in noticing that this film includes the Falcone assassination, but is not just about the Sicilian Mafia. I think The Best of Youth achieves a maturity and generosity toward its characters by this. Giordana’s work depends upon its Italian viewers to already possess some foundation about historic events. As for the national trauma that some have been, we could say that Giordana makes a film that is not stuck, that integrates horrific events into the whole with enough room left for characters of quite extraordinary detail and appeal. So for example, Giorgia remains in the brothers’ lives for many years in quite complex ways, calling forth the best and worst in each, actually grasping the brothers’ bond as no one else does. And Nicola sees how Matteo, who enters the army and then the police, is really most like his own lover Giulia, who leaves him and their four-year-old daughter Sara to fade into the Red Brigades. So at ease with nearly everyone, Nicola can interrupt neither the despair nor lethal choices of the two most dear to him. Growing up, Sara displays a streak that’s alarmingly like both. It’s not only that she’s ruthlessly competitive at cards and fencing. “Why are you so severe?” Nicola asks Sara when she’s happy to let her mother rot in Spoleto Maximum Security Prison – even though he has put Giulia there himself. Two days before Sara marries, Nicola effects her reconciliation with Giulia. “Are you happy? Then now is the time to be generous.” This might be either a rite of passage to adulthood or a nation integrating its past.

Originally envisioned as a television mini-series, The Best of Youth gains by the straightforwardness of that medium and by the current trend toward screening novelistic feature fiction film in various formats. Chance meetings and simple declarations about what happens next move things along economically that might as well so move. Adult characters age four decades mostly by the style and color of their hair; it seems a small matter.

On the other hand, The Best of Youth often displays considerable visual finesse. Giordana, cinematographer Roberto Forza and editor Roberto Missiroli have produced several remarkable intercut sequences that are tense and moving – particularly the moments leading up to Matteo’s New Year’s Eve suicide as he moves about his flat, waters his plants, surfs his TV, while the family he briefly visited celebrates elsewhere with a raucous card-game that humors the kids, then slips suddenly over the balcony rail as though casually stooping to tie a shoe.

The pervasive pleasure of other visual treatments emerges gradually. The motif of the courtyard – architecturally the heart of Italian structures – recurs repeatedly when characters look around some courtyard’s walls as though searching their own hearts, reinforcing that the name Carati has a root meaning heart as well. The day Nicola comes home to a grim, smoky political meeting in his living room and little Sara stashed in the kitchen, he scoots her out for some fresh air with a jovial dance step that echoes the Charlie Chaplin poster on the hallway wall. Characters who are emotionally outside frequently look in on intimate, warmly-lit scenes from a hallway, themselves shot in dark silhouette; this has the curious effect of joining us kindly with them, as though we were standing there in the hallway too. The night that Giulia leaves Nicola, she steps past him from their dark foyer through an open door that – illogically – lets in a blaze of red light, as though stepping into a furnace. When Nicola must tell Giorgia that Matteo is dead and Giulia arrested, Giorgia approaches the weeping man from behind as he sits on a garden bench; we watch parts of her come from over his shoulder – first her shambling feet, then one hand laid on his shoulder, then her palm on his cheek, after twenty years of not letting anyone touch her – long before we see her face. It is unsurprising that filmmakers so attuned to visual nuance would also give us characters – especially Matteo and Mirella – who make sense of the world by taking pictures.

The Best of Youth is a long film, here presented on two discs that run a tad over three hours each. Miramax has shaved a half hour plus off the European version, which runs at 6 hours, 40 minutes. This DVD set plays well on a large screen with lots of detail, rich color and good sound. The subtitles are legible; the end credits barely so. It has no extras at all.

Cineaste Magazine published this review in its Winter 2006 issue.