The Best of Youth
I tend to think of films as the equivalent of short stories. When Edgar Allen Poe listed a set of rules for short stories, first among them was that they should be able to be read in one sitting – just like films today. When we hear of our favorite novel being made into a film, we know they’re going to cut so much out that we’ll be disappointed. You can’t tell the story of a two inch thick book in 120 minutes.
The Best of Youth is the cinematic equivalent of that two inch thick book. It covers the life of two brothers (and friends and family) from the mid 1960s to the early years of the 21st century. It allows the characters to develop. It shows us the good and bad choices made and the consequences of those decisions. Most of all, we get to see the quest for happiness and all the work that has to go into that pursuit. But it is able to do that because it isn’t concerned with that two hour limit that keeps most films in the short story category. Youth takes six hours to tell its story – and it is time well spent.
Here we do not get a slice of life as in many films, rather we get an entire overview. Starting with the two brothers (Nicola and Matteo) as young idealistic students with their futures ahead of them, we follow to the point where Nicola, in the words of the director, “passes the baton” to the next generation. Along the way there are times of joy and triumph, but also times of great tragedy.
This is a story of choices made. Nicola and Matteo take different paths: Nicola off to see the world, then later settling into the comfortable life of a successful psychiatrist. Matteo chooses a life representing order; he joins the army, then later the police. When Nicola’s lover, Giulia, drifts into terrorism as part of the Red Brigade, she chooses to abandon her family, leaving Nicola and their young daughter Sara behind. Later, Matteo begins what could be a life fulfilling relationship with Mirella, but chooses instead to send her away. Giorgia, a young mental patient is temporarily liberated by the brothers in their youth from an asylum where she is being treated with electric shock, but opts to go back to the safety she knows rather than face a world that is full of fear. (Later, Nicola is able to liberate her far more effectively, but she still fears leaving the asylum.)
This is also the story of the way love is a great gift that comes into our lives. The tragic characters, such as Matteo and Giulia, are unable to open themselves to such a deep gift – and that inability leads to terrible consequences through their lives. But love continues to reach out. Giulia often wishes to see Sara, but not to be seen. It is as if she is doing penance for her sins by denying herself love. But just before Sara is to marry, she goes to Guilia and connects in such a way that the mother cannot help but respond.
The film often leaves motivation in the background. For example, when one of the key characters commits suicide, we never know why. We are left, along with friends and family, wondering what could drive this person to such an act. When Giulia, in jail, sends back a packet of music that Nicola had sent (Giulia was an accomplished pianist) after a few moments of joy in imagining the music, we also are left to wonder why she cannot accept such a gracious gift. In an American film, these motivations would have been excruciatingly explained for us. Here, however, we are challenged to understand the complexity of life, happiness and sorrow.
Youth does have a sense of hopefulness, but it is not a hopefulness built on wishful thinking. The hope we find here is the result of pressing on through difficult times and situations. The film encourages us to find our hope in living. It is by overcoming our fears and our bad choices that we are able, in the end, to find the happiness that we begin searching for in our youth. The happiness often comes in bits and pieces along the way; each bit of happiness needs to be cherished. The Best of Youth may well be a bit of joy that can help us along our journey to life and happiness.