Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Serendipity

If you're fortunate, there's at least one time in your movie-going life when a film completely takes you and changes the way you see the world around you. For film critic Kevin Courrier, that experience came during the press screenings for the 2003 Toronto International Film Festival with an epic six-hour saga, The Best of Youth.

Dropping Out of Time: Marco Tullio Giordana's The Best of Youth

Back in 2003, I was in the midst of attending early press screenings for the Toronto International Film Festival for Boxoffice Magazine. Although the Festival officially begins in early September, the work starts for most film journalists in mid-August. Since Boxoffice is also a trade publication (likeVariety), we often had to see a fair number of movies at each Festival (every year we kept inching towards seeing and reviewing close to 100 films). It took three of us to do it. (As it turns out, that trio now write for this website:Shlomo SchwartzbergSusan Green and myself.) Since Susan is from Vermont, while Shlomo and I are from Toronto, we would plan in advance who was going to review what before Susan arrived. One of the films I was assigned that year was an Italian picture called The Best of Youth (La meglio giovent├╣). Little did I realize that the movie was over six hours long. Little did I realize that it would also become one of the most satisfying movie experiences I would have in over thirty years of reviewing films.

It wasn't until I was planning my daily schedule did I realize The Best of Youth was an epic. I thought that maybe its running time was a typo. So I called my editor in Los Angeles to ask her if it was true. She was also surprised at the length. "So why are we reviewing this?" I asked. "Apparently, Miramax has it and is planning to open it," she informed me. "What American distributor opens six hour movies anymore? If this picture is bad, I'll be tapped out for the rest of the Festival," I explained with the hope that I could get out of this. When you are reviewing so many movies over a month of intensive film going and writing, you need to pace yourself. A bad movie can quickly turn you into a walking corpse. My editor immediately arrived at a solution. "I'll tell you what," she perked up. "Go see the movie. If it's really awful, just bail on it and we'll review it when it opens in L.A. later in the year. But if it's good, you've got your review." It seemed a fair deal. So I looked at the write-up in the Festival book and the story sounded intriguing. But I didn't know the director, or any of the actors, except one whose name I seemed to recall from Bernardo Bertolucci's 1964 debut Before the Revolution. I went to the screening with absolutely no expectations.

From left to right, Jasmine Trinca, Luigi Lo Cascio and Alessio Boni.

From the movie's opening moments, I was so completely drawn into the director's vision of how youthful idealism is both tested and sustained that, by its conclusion, I could barely move from my seat because I was so emotionally overcome. I remembered only two other occasions when that ever happened; once towards the end of Satyajit Ray's The World of Apu (which was also, curiously, about the testing and sustaining of ideals) and David Churchill and I with tears streaming down our faces in the final moments of John Huston's sublime adaptation of James Joyce's The DeadThe Best of Youth is a finely textured story that traces the lives of two distinctly different brothers from a middle-class Italian family. The film is divided into two parts. It begins with their graduation from university in the hopeful period of 1966, following through the politically turbulent '70s, then into their middle age of the early '80s. Part Two begins with Italy's 1982 World Cup victory and follows their lives into the '90s on through to the present day as Italy tries to rebuild into a more modern nation.


While it is shaped episodically like a sweeping family saga, The Best of Youth is also a powerfully affecting coming-of-age story. Nicola (Luigi Lo Cascio) is a hopeful university graduate who discovers that he is open to the adventures and surprises that life offers him. His brother, Matteo (Alessio Boni), however, is a deeply unhappy family prodigy who ultimately seeks refuge in security and order. During the summer of their graduation, an encounter with Giorgia (Jasmine Trinca), a disturbed and vibrant young woman who has been institutionalized by her father, changes the course of all their lives. The Best of Youth contrasts, over time, the way historical events intersect with (and alter) the individual fates of the characters.


Although The Best of Youth was originally financed by  and for – Italian television, it has an intimacy and sensibility unlike most television movies. The story may be episodic, taking in the famous flood in Florence in the '60s, Sicily's struggle against the Mafia, and the terrorism of the Red Brigades, but the characters add depth and meaning to those troubling periods. You wouldn't call The Best of Youth radical in terms of its technique, but with an informal realism, director Marco Tullio Giordana paints a luxurious and loving portrait of people coming to terms with their history. There are such beautifully modulated performances from this vast cast of compelling characters that The Best of Youth, like the best of Jean Renoir, Satyajit Ray, Luciano Visconti and Francois Truffaut (parts of Georges Delerue's poignant score for Jules and Jim are used) becomes a profoundly humanistic and affirmative experience.

When I finally found the strength to leave the theatre, I ended up late meeting Susan for dinner. When she saw me in my stricken state, she naturally assumed that something horrible had happened. When I assured her it was actually the transcendent experience I had at this six-hour movie, she said, "Six hours!" But that's what most people say. I've been recommending this film (and lecturing about it) for years now. Some have resisted the temptation to see it. Others have initially resisted and then went only to phone me later (as one individual did waking me at 2am) to tell me how deeply the experience had stirred them. I think maybe critic Roger Ebert put it best when he said, "Every review of The Best of Youth begins with the information that it is six hours long. No good movie is too long, just as no bad movie is short enough. I dropped outside of time and was carried along by the narrative flow; when the film was over, I had no particular desire to leave the theatre and would have happily stayed another three hours." He's right. I could have also stayed another three hours. We sometimes forget that there are many great long epics from Greed to the first two Godfather films; movies that transcend their genre and find a place where, as Ebert says, you can drop out of time. 

- originally published on May 10, 2011 in Critics at Large.



Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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