In The Whole Equation, an infuriating and highly enjoyable new book by David Thomson, the author ponders the differences between two of 1939’s most renowned films; Jean Renoir’s Le Régle du Jeu and David O. Selznick’s (let’s be honest about whole the Victor Fleming thing, shall we?) Gone With The Wind:
“There’s room enough to love both films; the all time success and the box-office failure, the landmark and the masterpiece. But observe how fully the Renoir picture is committed to real nature and human nature: the array of characters in which the seem more from life than from a fashion magazine; the general eschewing of adoring close-ups by Renoir in favor of a camera style that keeps people in groups, in social interaction; the way the French film employs locations, a true out-of-doors and real rooms. There is never a dull moment or a plain view in Gone With The Wind ; is that one reason why it feels so removed from real life? On the other hand, the Renoir film makes us feel the relationship between fiction and life, meaning and chaos.”
Without endorsing Thomson’s overstatements (which are part of what makes The Whole Equation such a fun read), this sentence does illuminate a tension that I feel is probably echoed over and over again in my own thinking about film: the division that exists between the popular conception of the film epic and those films that are far more important; the epic explorations of intimate reality in human interaction, a.k.a the ‘art films’. Last Saturday, this tension came to a head in a single, six-hour screening of Marco Giordana’s exceptional film The Best of Youth .
Before contemplating the film itself, it is interesting to note that the primary attraction of the film for several of my friends and colleagues was the novelty of its length. When I e-mailed them to organize a group viewing and post-screening dinner, most people were excited less by the idea of the film’s story and more by the ‘test of endurance’ that was posed by the back-to-back three hour screenings required to see the film in a single day. Of course, the art house has its share of endurance tests**, but there is nothing more tedious in movies today than the ham-handed Hollywood epic. These are the films that can make 3 hours feel like an eternity. There have been moments when watching some over-stuffed piece of ego-driven drivel like Gladiator where I am so angry at all of the nonsense being forced into the shell of a story, I decide to force myself to stay just so I can see the editor’s name in the credits and add that name to my cinematic shit list. Gladiator is 155 minutes and contains not a single frame that delivers that feeling of ‘the relationship between fiction and life?’ Oh, Pietro Scalia, how could you let Ridley Scott force this dross on you?
Fortunately, The Best of Youth understands real life. The film is the stuff of a true epic; a deep plunge into the lives of human characters who experience history (and one another) across the decades. There has been much written about the film’s “novelistic” approach to the story of the Nicola (Luigi Lo Cascio) and Matteo (Alessio Boni), two Roman brothers whose paths in life take them in different directions in the last half of the 20th Century. But it is precisely the film’s reliance on novelistic form and length that gives the film such a refreshingly human perspective. This is a delicate balance. Too often, even relatively short films feel long because the viewer is given nothing to truly care about; nothing real is at stake, nothing believable draws you in. It is the fundamental flaw of many films today that character has become a tertiary concern to plot and special effects. On the other hand, The Best of Youth is awash in character, so much so that any description of the film depends almost solely on ticking off a list of subtle changes and modulations in its characters. This explains the reliance on the novel as the form against which the film must be compared: there are no films being made today that utilize six hours to examine the convergence of history and personal activity. That is, no one is using the epic form to talk about everyday life. Of course, a glance onto any shelf in the Fiction section of your local library will reveal hundreds of examples. In fact, it is precisely the act of finding the architecture of the epic in the details of everyday life that defines the modern novel. James Joyce didn’t call it Ulysses for nothin’.
I am trying desperately to talk around the specifics of the film’s story in order to find away to talk about its charms, but there is no getting around it; spending six hours in the company of these people somehow, unbelievably, ends up feeling like too little time. Of course, the film was originally presented as an episodic mini-series on RAI TV in Italy and I can only imagine the anticipation of waiting for the next episode. But I am also envious; the TV audience had days to think about the characters, to feel concern for their well being, to spend time with the story without the finality of an ending. I had one afternoon. Of course, someone at Miramax may have recognized this impulse when deciding to release the film as two separate admissions. One has the choice of sitting through it in a single day or taking in Part I and letting the story settle before, days (weeks? Is it possible?) later, taking in the conclusion in Part II. Maybe there was a good reason to break this film in half. Or maybe, someone wanted to make $20 instead of $10. Sounds eerily familiar. But enough about me.
Beginning in 1966 and spanning four decades, Marco Giordana’s The Best of Youth is the story of the Carati brothers; Matteo (Boni), the intellectual whose attempt to act compassionately ends in a lifelong quest for structure, and Nicola (Lo Cascio), a free spirited medical student who is the very definition of compassion. After completing their university exams, the brothers are prepared to embark on a road trip across Europe with their friends, when Matteo decides to help a young, beautiful asylum patient named Giorgia (Jasmine Trinca) escape from the institution and re-unite with her father. This initial set-up echoes powerfully throughout the film as one by one, institutions continually fail the ideals and dreams of the characters. In fact, the fundamental conflict between institutional ideals and individual goals is at the center of the film’s dramatic activity. This is the perfect way for Giordana to compare the failures of Italian society and the depths of its institutional flaws against the impact of these institutions on the lives of Italians. There are countless examples of institutional failure in the film: the electroshock treatment that Giorgia endures in the asylum; Nicola’s attempts at reforming the practice of psychiatry and the management of asylums; Matteo’s quest for solace in the authoritarian structure of the military and police forces (and his failure to find solace at all); the anti-establishment stance of Giulia (Sonia Bergamasco) leading her to pursue terror in another institution, the Red Brigade. The ultimate failure to find consolation and structure in Italian institutions leads all of these characters to find comfort and reason in family and friends, and Giordana balances the frustrations and failures of public activity perfectly against the trials and tribulations of private life.
The film is almost perfectly balanced, but there are flaws in the tapestry. Often, the plot weaves itself into obvious choices, but it is only natural that, given 5 hours to build relationships between characters, things are to pay off to our satisfaction, if not our surprise. There may have been better plot options (who doesn’t see the December romance of the final act coming from a mile off?), but for every obvious choice, there are ten moments where Giordana allows his characters to act perfectly in tune with their previous decisions, allowing their failures to win the day (Giulia’s refusal to attend Sara’s wedding, Matteo’s ultimate choice). There are some truly regrettable moments (Matteo uniting the lovers on a long road being the one shot that made me literally shake my head in shame for the director), but five bad minutes in a six-hour film is a ratio I would kill for in any movie. Just as his characters are imperfect, Giordana himself is only human.
Ultimately, it is the epic 40-year scope of the film that draws us in, holds us in its embrace, and allows us to experience life with the Caratis. Without the “novelty” of those six wonderful hours, following the heartbreaks and joys of life across the decades, the film would never be able to deliver that thrill that Thomson so accurately described as ‘the relationship between fiction and life, meaning and chaos.’ This is time well spent, and compared with most hours spent in a movie theater, it all felt like a luxurious pleasure. After the film, my friends and I spilled out on to Houston St., recounting the story, discussing our thoughts and opinions about the Caratis. We slid into a small bistro in TriBeCa and ate dinner, consumed copious amounts of wine, and celebrated life. It was the perfect response to a perfect day at the movies.
**I know there are those out there who can watch a film like Sátántángó and be thrown into fits of ecstasy, but man, I find those films to be the really hard work, tests of endurance that allow for a certain pride in completion, but ultimately are not much more than a huge pain in the ass, like I assume climbing Mt. Everest must be.