Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu May 06, 2004 4:34 pm 
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La meglio gioventù (The Best of Youth) is a six-hour Italian TV miniseries (shown in theaters and at festivals as two three-hour films) that traces the lives of two brothers through the last four decades of Italian history. Nicola and Matteo Carati begin as pals and kindred spirits who rescue a deranged girl, Giorgia, and travel with her, intending to go on a great adventure. A miscalculation leads to Giorgia being seized by police and the brothers have a falling out. Nicola goes to Norway as planned and works for a lumber company but Matteo stays in Italy and joins the army. This opening sequence may seem either original and fresh for a historical series – because it’s so odd and personal – or simply quirky and pointless, as well as dreadfully overlong, depending on how you look at it. It has the strengths and weaknesses of the whole series: it’s engaging and draws you in emotionally, but it has no real explanations of the people it depicts. The film has rubrics rather than ideas. This is the filmmakers’ strategy: they achieve comprehensiveness at the cost of omitting analysis.

Nicola returns to Italy to become a psychiatrist and crusader for humane treatment of the insane. Matteo seems to be hiding some inexplicable pain and to need constant discipline. Hence the military service and later the police, and the secret, hidden life he leads which he can rarely share with anybody. The brothers run into each other at the flood of Florence in 1966 when Nicola is still a bit of a hippy and has just met Giulia, who becomes his wife. Giulia, a gifted keyboard artist, is a slightly crazy blonde type. With her big nose, thick lips, and odd remote stare she resembles Monica Vitti in The Red Desert -- but without the warmth. The couple lives in Turin in its period of labor militancy, the late Sixties. Giulia first gives up music and then leaves Nicola and their little girl to become a member of the Red Brigades living incognito and plotting assassinations she never achieves. Nicola raises their daughter alone. He betrays Giulia for her own good and to prevent violence and she spends many years in prison, while Matteo remains in the prison of his own strange self denial.

What are Matteo’s demons? He has a brief affair with a wonderful young woman. He appears at a family New Year’s Eve gathering, and then abruptly leaves. Alone, while the family is playing games, he grows desperate and throws himself out the window. Why? We never find out – it’s as if his suicide is the writers’ solution to their inability to develop this character, as Giulia’s similar self-denial and incarceration save them from explaining her. (Are the Red Brigades members crazy, or simply cold people ready to abandon their near and dear for a life of terrorism? Giulia seems a bit of both, but not a revolutionary with revolutionary ideas.)

This leaves Nicola, the conventional, good, all-suffering man, who thinks all things in life are beautiful but takes a decade or so and three hours of screen time to realize he’s in love with Matteo’s girlfriend, the earthy photographer, Mirella, whose son by then is about eighteen. Sometimes the dates don’t quite seem to compute, and nobody ages very much, though the parents die, their father of cancer early, la mamma, old and mellow in Sicily in a saccharine, but mostly unseen, final idyll with Mirella and her seven-year-old. There’s an elder sister, Adriana, who’s a magistrate. And there’s another important male member of the family, Carlo, who’s a banker, a more conventional, more jovial (and less movie-sexy, bespectacled, though tall and elegant) man, who also performs the useful function of representing Italy’s postwar prosperity, the economic miracle and the globalization and wealth of the Eighties and Nineties. (By an odd coincidence, Giulia is in a cadre assigned to assassinate Carlo. More than once such historical dovetailing defies credibility.)

Visually La meglio gioventù is also conventional – it signals major divisions every time by a panoramic view of Rome – and it’s conventional in its conclusions too. And the whole second half is one long tearjerker. There’s a working class character, a Sicilian pal of Matteo’s from the army, who’s fired from the FIAT factory when the Eighties boom begins. The banker, Carlo, says it’s inevitable; there’s something really complacent about the way this same banker much later bonds with him by giving him the job of rehabbing his posh estate in the Tuscan countryside. They hang out and get drunk with Nicola in the lovely World of Interiors living room and it’s all very jolly. Would that class distinctions were so easily resolved.

Nicola’s theories about mental institutions are developed at one point; and Matteo’s police investigations of corrupt ones link them at another point. His work also takes him to Sicily and the assassination of the Judge Falcone and the whole war against the Mafia is thus alluded to: that’s going on when Nicola first searches out Mirella. He discovers a giant portrait of Matteo in an exhibition of her photographs (and others’), which is rather well done.

It’s always fun to watch people develop in detail and in more scenes than an ordinary film allows and La meglio gioventù gives this satisfaction, showing us lives changing over time, arousing almost Proustian feelings at moments. Boldly ambitious this film is, Proust it is not. What film could be? One could say a TV series to cover so much time and to integrate so many national experiences with personal ones should be in segments that are briefer and sharper – the opening sequence of the two brothers wandering around with the girl is too diffuse – or simply much longer; but it is what it is, namely, a glossy historical melodrama. And, all in all, well worth watching. Bring two handkerchiefs to Part Two.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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