Director: Marco Tullio Giordana
Screenplay: Sandro Petraglia, Stefano Rulli
Marco Tullio Giordana’s La meglio gioventù was first screened to the Italian masses in June of 2003, just one month after winning the Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard Award. It was a massive hit in Italy, later going on to be shown in four parts in December of 2003 on Italian state television network Rai Uno. Yet despite screening in numerous countries around the world, the film arguably retains an air of obscurity about it, most likely due to its daunting 383 minute running time. (In case you’re still doing the maths on that one, it’s just under six and a half hours. Yes, you read that correctly: six. And a half. Hours.)
Following the course of the lives of brothers Nicola (Luigi Lo Cascio) and Matteo Carati (Alessio Boni) from 1966 to 2003, La meglio gioventù juxtaposes the transition from youth to adulthood with some of Italy’s major historical events. Nicola is a medical student motivated by a strong desire to right the wrongs he sees within Italy’s brutal mental healthcare systems. Matteo, despite his passion for literature, is a no nonsense hardass, attracted to the strict rules and discipline of the military and police forces. On a trip to Norway’s North Cape in 1966, the brothers go their separate ways and from this point, the film examines the different course of each man’s life.
For the most part, Nicola is the story’s protagonist, with the majority of the film being devoted to him. We watch as Nicola dabbles with the life of the wandering hippy throughout the late sixties, spurned on by slight notions of free love, the beauty of life and topped with his ever increasing compassionate desire to help those who suffer. By the 70’s he’s fathered a child with activist/communist Giulia (Sonia Bergamasco) and settled in Turin.
The problem with epic films such as La meglio gioventù is that there’s always a notion that if it’s long, it’s art. If it’s long, it’s a miraculous concoction of cinematic magic that simply couldn’t have existed within the suffocating realm of 90 or even 120 minutes. If it’s long, it has meaning. The fact of the matter is, La meglio gioventù most certainly did not need to be six and a half hours long. In fact, the last three and a half hours of the film are simply there. They function by continuing to show the lives of the characters on screen, yet they really say nothing about these lives. I myself am of the opinion that after 383 minutes, I should know the characters onscreen inside and out. There should be no murky side to the people I’ve been watching grow up for over six hours. That’s not the case with this film. I can honestly say that although Nicola’s life was for the most part interesting to observe, by the film’s end I did not feel that I knew anything more about who he was than I had learned within the film’s first hour.
The same can be said of Matteo, a character whom I found to be particularly annoying. Right from the start we can see that something isn’t quite right with him, but we are never sure exactly what. He’s temperamental and isolationist, anti-social and depressed. Why he behaves this way is really anyone’s guess. Even his family can’t figure him out. Still, we are asked to observe him for hours without ever getting a deeper look into who he is. It’s repetitive and frustrating to watch.
The film finds its best groove early on by hinting at a severe social and personal conflict between the two brothers. Unfortunately, around hour number three, it became apparent that the film is more a showcase of the changes in life brought on by the passing of time, and that there really was no central conflict. Time passes and we watch its affect on the multitude of characters. Perhaps this is how life really works, but if that’s the case, why stop at six hours to illustrate how life manifests itself upon people? Why not 9 hours? 16? 24?
The point of course, is that La meglio gioventù wants badly to be a studious examination of life. Yet what it misses in this gargantuan process is that life is a series of both small and large incidents which shape who we are and how we live. Aside from one or two major incidents at the start of the film, Nicola and Matteo’s lives are disappointingly unaffected by any of the film’s potential character shaping moments. And this failure to see what effect life’s twists and turns have on a person’s character makes the entire journey from 1966 to 2003 actually feel like six-hours of actors acting rather than thirty-seven years of people living.