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The recent Lord of the Rings saga is between 9 and 12 hours long, depending on which versions you watch. But unless you watched it on DVD, back-to-back, it was spread out over three years.

From Italy comes another saga. This one is only 2 three-hour episodes long, but most people see them back to back. And believe me, you won’t want to see one without the other.

The Rising Sun

Two brothers growing up through the sixties and seventies
Two brothers growing up through the sixties and seventies

The Best of Youth is an Italian family epic. It’s got the same pace of life as Once Upon a Time in America or 1900, and it’s got the same emotional drama as Antonia’s Line.

The film (shot on Super 16 film, although some video artifacts sneaked into the print I saw) follows two brothers, Matteo and Nicola. We start in 1966 to a surprisingly apt “House of the Rising Sun,” (remember this when you watch the last shot of the film). The brothers are just finishing their first year of college. They have a road trip to Norway planned with two friends. At the last minute, Matteo changes the plans. He decides to kidnap one of the inmates of the asylum where he works. The girl is named Giorgia, and she has scars from electroshock therapy, which is illegal.

The brothers make their excuses and take a detour to the town where Giorgia’s father lives. Far from being pleased, the father just wants his daughter to stay in the asylum and get professional treatment until she’s well. She can’t do anything here, and he can’t take care of her.

The Great Schism

The episode (followed by Giorgia’s arrest), opens a deep rift between the brothers. The source of their differences is never explained, but suddenly Matteo decides to return home to join the army, in search of a life with rules and structure, while Nicola drifts up to Norway, without an itinerary and without any plans for the future.

Nicola falls in with the Norwegian hippies. He returns to Italy to help save rare books from a flood at the library in Florence, where he falls in love with a blonde communist. It’s the first of many reunion scenes; Matteo is here with his national guard unit to give aid as well. And although the soldiers and the hippies mock each other, the bond between brothers is far stronger than differences in politics.

So far I might have described a quarter of the film. I won’t bother retelling the rest. Suffice it to say that there are weddings, births, funerals, obstacles, betrayals, triumphs, and many more reunions, all set against the backdrop of recent Italian politics and history.

Two Halves of a Whole

The two parts have their own distinct flavor. Part I shows the characters swept along by events. It seems to be a portrait of the times, like a historical drama. Frankly, it’s a little aimless. (I confess I even thought of Daffy Duck’s imagined epic, The Scarlet Pumpernickel.)

It also has a political message that condemns the young communists and hippies. Fair enough, except that the move was produced by Italian National TV, which is owned by president Berlusconi, so any politics in the movie as the characters approach modern times might not be so welcome.

But Part II isn’t nearly as political as Part I; it’s more personal. There are still political sentiments: the communists are still active, and Carlo has become an important figure in Italian economics. But by the end, which is set in 2003, the story is so interested in the characters that anything outside their web of relationships is secondary.

By the end, we know these characters so well that simply seeing any two of them meet again is enough to draw tears to your eyes. Thankfully, the reunions and farewells are not forced by the script. (Contrast this, suggested a friend, to The Lord of th Rings, in which the last half-hour of farewells is practically forced down our throats.) Instead, The Best of Youth just lets the characters spend some time together, without any artificial sentiment.

It’s hard to say that The Best of Youth is not for all tastes, because I think anyone willing to take the time to watch it would enjoy it. Maybe the first half is a little aimless, but the characters are so engaging that you will not regret the time involved in making their acquaintance.

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies