Not since Evan Hunter's seminal 1974 novel Streets of Gold has an epic followed the shifting currents of Italian lives with as much bravura as Marco Tullio Giordana's La Meglio Gioventù -- (The Best of Youth). Shot for Italian television but screened at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival (and around the world) as a six-hour feature, Gioventù turns its gaze to the interworkings of a single Mediterranean family, the Caratis. Shifting between substories, Giordana uses the extended run time to map out the transitions of each character over the decades so smoothly, subtly, and convincingly that those changes fly under the audience's radar. The director works melodramatic twists into his formula, but, surprisingly, those twists never feel necessary. Giordana uses the more histrionic events only as formulaic hooks (and benchmarks), and something more essential and wondrous begins to happen at the core of the drama: we find ourselves pulled gently into the sweet, subtle and lyrical growth of the Carati family, collectively, over the passing years -- as a larger product of the individual characters' transitions. Equally impressive is Giordana's ability to not only wrap the narrative around Italian historical poles (which will elude Americans in their specificity but are obvious in their existence) but to use the familial events as a kind of microcosmic analogue (and corollary) of the broader conflicts in Italian society -- particularly that of the Red Brigade terrorist underground versus the establishment.
Gioventù falls short of perfection, but only by a notch or two. The sequential transitions in the first half feel a bit jerky; as for substories, Giordana virtually abandons his gripping opener after he sets it up, which leaves us initially bewildered (though one could argue, of course, that such stories are seldom resolved in the everyday world, and typically do trail off, sans resolution). And even though the filmmaker unexpectedly resumes this thread at a later stage, such is not an isolated weakness: several points arise when so much time passes in the context of the story without updates on one particular subplot or another that we scratch our heads incredulously. Also, the pace lags a bit in the second half -- a few conversations drag and fail to push the narrative forward significantly. And, cosmetically, Giordana and co. handle the aging of the actors with great clumsiness. But, when held next to this picture's many extraordinary achievements, one can easily overlook these minor flaws. To disclose any of Gioventù's fascinating story developments here would be grossly unfair and cruel, except to note that Giordana feels unafraid to courageously toy with the form and defy the "first ten minutes rule" of screenwriting by capriciously injecting a fantasy element into one of the momentous, heart-rending closing scenes -- a move that suggests influence by the 1990 Milou en Mai.
One might compare this picture's broad, sweeping canvas to a marvelously engrossing novel, but it actually transcends the level of a roman -- for a first-time viewer, the film carries the paralyzing shocks and joyous discoveries of everyday life. And on that level, it truly is a special motion picture -- and one that exudes wonder from first frame to last. When one of the Carati grandsons finally utters the last line -- a point-blank reflection on the beauty of living -- what might otherwise seem clichéd and stale feels more than justified by the great life-tapestry that has preceded it.