Among the globalized falling dominoes of the last decades of the 20th century, Italy has suffered more than its share of turbulence, from the student-worker protests of the late 1960s to the terrorist years of the ’70s and early ’80s, to the corporate scandals of the 1990s, a drastically falling birth rate and the virtual collapse of central government. By most measures of social and political coherence the country is a shambles, yet it has somehow thrived on an unruly if pioneering postmodern dialectic of private dynamism and public chaos. This may sound like dry material for a televised domestic drama, but to the millions of Italians who tuned in to The Best of Youth one week in 2003, the majestically soapy miniseries became a national event, an emotional walk through 40 years of tumultuous history in the shoes of a family not unlike their own. Remastered in 35mm, the drama played to rapturous acclaim at Cannes and is now being released by Miramax in American theaters in two parts. It shouldn’t be missed.

Stamped with the vital intimacy of autobiography, the movie opens in 1966, when director Marco Tullio Giordana and screenwriters Sandro Petraglia and Stefano Rulli came of age, and travels the subsequent years — of violent swings between idealism and despair — through the polarized paths of two brothers, one driven by his love of life, the other by cynicism and despair. This sounds schematic, and there’s no question but that the brothers are meant to symbolize the light and dark of their country. Still, The Best of Youth is fueled as much by the novelistic expansiveness of its characters (the dialogue is both subtle and unabashedly poetic) as by its epic ambition to define an era. A gentle, delicate-featured lover of women, Nicola (Luigi Lo Cascio) is open to experience in whatever form it presents itself, tragedy included. His brother, Matteo (Alessio Boni), a ruinously sensitive, bookish sort whose eyes blaze with the hurt, murderous stare of a young Brando, is an absolutist, the kind of lost soul often found in the dark corners of large families.

It’s Matteo who throws a wrench into a carefree post-finals trip the brothers plan to take with two friends, by springing a troubled young mental patient from the asylum where she’s been blasted with electroshock therapy. Their efforts to return her to her family fail, and the brothers go their separate ways?. When next they meet in the university town of Turin, Nicola is a campus protester living with his fiery girlfriend, Giulia (Sonia Bergamasco), while Matteo, a policeman who has surrendered his fierce autonomy to others, orders and goes about cracking activist heads with gusto. Nicola becomes a shrink in the burgeoning anti-psychiatry movement and has a daughter by the lover he will later lose to a Red Brigades terrorist cell. Matteo, once an avid amateur photographer, ends up in Sicily taking pictures of mob victims for a forensics unit, falls for Mirella (Maya Sansa), a warm, candid young shutterbug on the island of Palermo, and, passing on yet another opportunity for happiness, gives in to his lonely fatalism.

The Best of Youth takes its title from a poem by Pasolini, but its influences are the great Italian neo-realists past and present (from Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers to Gianni Amelio’s Stolen Children) and their obsession with family and class, and it steams ahead with a melodramatic intensity that’s part Sirk, part soap opera. Like every film that brings a huge cast to a grand historical canvas, this one succumbs occasionally to an excess of serendipity, not to mention a glib division of history into decades. The brothers and their family and friends keep bumping conveniently into each other in far-flung corners of the country, at moments of national crisis — the floods in Florence, the Moro assassination.

Still, there’s nothing clumsy about the way the filmmakers dispose of one Italian stereotype after another. Audiences schooled by Hollywood to see Italians either as gravel-voiced mobsters (in one scene the movie takes a sly, affectionate potshot at Coppola) or gesticulating huggers from huge, enveloping clans may be surprised by the Caratis, a loyal and loving but entirely modern family headed by an ineffectual father and a mother so devoted to the children in her classroom that she fails to see warning signs of trouble among her own brood. Like us they stagger through life, pretending not to notice that their momentous choices are no more than shots in the dark setting off chains of unintended consequences, or that the social institutions that formerly propped up the individual are crumbling around them.

And like all great family sagas, The Best of Youth, while tipping its hat to the painful confusion of living life forward, reels it backward to give it the thrilling significance of time and place. As new families and friends pile up, and the pattern of dark and light repeats as they age, The Best of Youth never yields to cynicism or despair or abandons the youthful idealism with which Nicola and Matteo embarked? on adulthood. Its themes are for everybody, though this wonderful drama must surely hold a special relevance for the graying boomers who went through those wild years, who have since been browbeaten by time and disillusion, yet hang onto their ideals without hatred or resentment. “Are you happy?” Nicola asks his daughter, now grown up into a beautiful young restorer of ancient treasures and faced with a difficult decision about the mother who abandoned her. She says she is, and he tells her, somewhere between rue and relief, “Then now is the time to be generous.”

The Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira is 96 years old, and the only reason that’s worth mentioning is that he’s one of the few filmmakers alive who’s still willing to shape a movie around a conversation about Western civilization with a more or less straight face. One way or another all Oliveira’s films (he’s best known in this country for the modest 2001 art-house hit I’m Going Home, about an aging actor coming to terms with his declining powers) are meditations on the eternal dance of culture and barbarism, and his latest may be the most direct expression of a hovering fear that all that is best about Europe is rapidly going under.

Structured like a chatty play in three acts, A Talking Picture begins aboard a cruise ship with a young Portuguese history professor (played by Leonor Silveira, one of those glowing young things for whom the director has always had an appreciative eye) taking her cute little daughter (Filipa De Almeida) on a tour of ancient Mediterranean sites, from Marseilles to Athens to Egypt, while giving her a lesson on the violent contradictions of history. Charming men keep butting in to offer harmless flirtation and local color, and this goes on pleasantly if circuitously enough until — just as I was regressing into the sullen resentment of one who was dragged round one too many English stately homes as a child — the movie takes a decorous jog into a discreet comedy of manners. Three aging lovelies, played by no lesser éminence grises than Catherine Deneuve, Irene Papas and Stefania Sandrelli, gather around the dinner table of the ship’s captain (an unusually deferential John Malkovich with only a hint of rattlesnake about him) to banter about their loves and losses, the age-old battle of the sexes, the decline of their separate languages and the tyranny of English. Each speaking in her own tongue, they form a European Babel of good manners.

Then, in a jarring aesthetic and dramatic shift, something happens that annihilates at a stroke the elaborate courtliness that has gone before. As a narrative strategy it seems almost shockingly crass, especially coming from a man nearly all of whose films have been talking pictures of one sort or another. As a political statement it is either a cry of despair or a grim acknowledgment that in the endless cycles of history, civilization will always have its saboteurs.


A TALKING PICTURE | Written and directed by MANOEL DE OLIVEIRA | Produced by PAULO BRANCO | Released by Kino International | At Laemmle’s Fairfax

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