A Stranger to Himself: Matteo, When He Was Nicola

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The flawed yet powerful six-hour Italian drama The Best of Youth (La Meglio Gioventù) begins in 1966 and spans nearly 40 years. Don’t be dismayed by the epic running time: the movie in its languorous way pulls you right into the lives of its characters, and although Best of Youth occasionally meanders, there’s a point to the meandering, and ultimately six hours seems not quite enough (I can think of several 90-minute films that feel longer) to savor, to grieve, and to celebrate along with the siblings and spouses of the Carati family. The movie, originally shown in installments on Italian television, examines how perfect unions form and how they un-form. It nails self-abnegation and loss with devastating precision. The Best of Youth works on your emotions, yes, but always to the good, never the manipulative.

The film contrasts two brothers, Matteo and Nicola. At the beginning, Matteo (Alessio Boni) impressed me as bookish and uptight. A literature student, he regards with veiled disdain his father’s request that he put down a volume of poetry long enough to help lug a heavy piece of furniture. Nicola (Luigi LoCascio), the more practical and mainstream of the two, willingly casts aside his medical texts to oblige their well-intentioned yet impervious pa-pa, who then promptly rewards Nicola with the gift of a skeleton—it might come in handy at med school, the old man supposes. There’s a bit of light comedy in these early scenes, especially during the row between the father and mother, wherein he tells his Milan-born wife that she “lacks imagination.” It’s the father who’s the flighty, flamboyant dreamer and the mother who essays down-to-earth common sense. Andrea Tidona and Adriana Asti tear into these roles with a vigor that transcends the earthy stereotypes they appear to be playing.

The director Marco Tullio Giordana and the co-scenarists Sandro Petraglia and Stefano Rulli include a scene that’s pure atmosphere. The brothers and their pals attend an outdoor dance near graduation. American pop songs pipe on the soundtrack, a prostitute sporting a stiff beehive arranges assignations, and we sense a carefree moment passing by where nothing will ever be this sultrily moon-drenched again. Even here, there’s something different, remote, about Matteo. He holds back, he’s absent though present, and he’s less interested in sex than the other men. That Alessio Boni, who plays Matteo, has such a dazzling exterior only deepens the puzzle. A tall man, with a handsome face framed by feathery, mid-length hair, the kind of hair that fingers instinctively want to muss, he implies by his quiet intelligence a sureness of his path. Boni makes such a strong impression from the start while, conversely, LoCascio’s Nicola makes almost none at all. A frivolous reveler who’s told by a professor on his exam board, “Do you have any ambition? Then leave Italy,” Nicola embodies conventionality. He and his high-spirited buddies Carlo and Berto are nearly indistinguishable, even interchangeable in their callowness.

Then something happens.

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Something happens in the course of a long, frustrating, difficult episode where the brothers accompany across Italy a mentally ill young woman named Giorgia. In the meltdown of this centrally defining mishap, Matteo and Nicola seemingly transfer lives, personas, destinies. Nicola drops out of society and flourishes; Matteo rejects passion, and he shrivels. So harsh is the disparity in their fates that some 10 or 11 years down the line, when Matteo meets Mirella, an attractive, ebullient young photographer in Palermo, and they chat and flirt, and she asks him his name, he replies—after a pause—“Nicola.” Another six years after that, Matteo and Mirella will casually come across each other in Rome. They start an affair, during which he continues to tell her he’s Nicola. And this is only one of the ways The Best of Youth works its strange, dark, heartbreaking power.

The performances here, and I’m not exaggerating—Boni, LoCascio, Asti as their mother, and especially Maya Sansa as Mirella—took my breath away. There’s a densely textured New Year’s Eve sequence in the early 1980s that juxtaposes Matteo and Mirella alone in their respective apartments when they should be together: his place is a barren dump; hers, briefly glimpsed just this once, defines this free-spirited yet solidly grounded woman as someone who lives sensuously. She’s an artist without being neurotic. She’s warm, and everything points to her pulling Matteo back into the life he suppressed. Elsewhere in the night, Matteo drops in on his family’s New Year libations. Stepping into his mother’s bedroom on the pretense of making a phone call, he can’t fail to notice that she still keeps his straight-A report cards hung on the wall by her nightstand. A mildly tense scene plays out between mother and son. She misses the person he was, or almost became, and he knows it. The next day, Nicola will visit Matteo’s apartment, and he’s shocked to see what his brother has settled for.

This description may not convey the emotional rawness that the filmmakers expose. The Best of Youth isn’t a perfect movie, or even a particularly consistent one, yet the mere accuracy with which it depicts various states of love, hurt, and confusion shook me more profoundly than any film I can recall. I’ll admit it—I wept buckets. Tears sidled down my cheeks almost throughout the movie’s second half, and had I not been in a screening room filled with jaded critics, I might even have permitted myself an audible sob. Even later, reading the notes I took in the dark, reading the press kit, writing this review—even these bring back impressions vivid enough to launch an avalanche from my lachrymal glands. Giordana, Petraglia, and Rulli are quick to cite Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers as the precursor to their film. The Best of Youth reminds me a bit of Ozu’s Tokyo Story, mainly in the lavish time it takes on small, revealing details. And Maya Sansa’s Mirella distantly echoes Noriko, the daughter-in-law played by Setsuko Hara, who treated her husband’s parents with far greater kindness and dignity than did their own children.

Elements of a political thriller are here as well. One major character, a promising classical pianist, loses herself in the tides of terrorism that plagued Italy during the 70s and early 80s. We watch her transition from a young activist with a cause into that most dreadful of creatures, the tiresome old radical hell-bent on Violent Social Change. Giordana tightens the pace a bit in these sections. There’s a crisply edited holiday outing to the Colosseum that turns into a sting operation, and in one sublime passage, a father and daughter bake cookies, and the girl, who’s perhaps 8, gradually forms a connection between her absent mommy and the way her distracted daddy pays such rapt attention to reports of bombings and assassinations on the TV news. Greta Cavuoti, the actress who plays this astute child, is already at a master at letting us know what she’s thinking.

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There isn’t any way—none that occurs to me—to praise the excellence of Luigi LoCascio as Nicola without spoon-feeding you more of the story developments. Here I have to return to the linchpin of Matteo and Nicola escorting Giorgia from an asylum to country villages. The actors look too mature to be so naïve about “liberating” Giorgia from her doctors into the fresh air; the director maddeningly spends what at first seems disproportionate time on a mission doomed to fail. Matteo’s conflicted need to “help” Giorgia and his inability to give her what she needs on even the simplest level irritated me. Watch them as they stand in front of a café jukebox selecting a song. On the train with her asleep on his shoulder, Giorgia and Matteo make a handsome couple. Visually, the pieces fit. The movie understatedly handles that harsh, early lesson so well—that surfaces aren’t what they seem. When Giorgia (convincingly portrayed in near silence by Jasmine Trinca) slips away from the brothers’ lives in a scene as upsetting as it is casual, Matteo then abandons Nicola at a railway station. LoCascio, who has seemed increasingly substantial in the travails with Giorgia, here blossoms into a full creation. The look of hurt on Nicola’s face as Matteo pulls himself away I cannot forget. Matteo, after expecting so much from Nicola, dumps him without so much as a rational “why.” The brothers diverge on separate paths, and the filmmakers unveil their real subject: how individuals, no matter how close, will respond differently to the same chaotic event. The film has another major theme, equally vast, and more heartrending still: how each successive generation believes that it will be the one to correct society’s ills, only to find after a lifetime that one generation can accomplish just so much before yielding to another “best of youth.”

LoCascio makes every permutation of Nicola’s awakening authentic and believable. There’s an extraordinary scene on board a boat sailing to Norway: Nicola meets an Afro-sporting young black American who’s dodging the Vietnam draft; shots of pristine blue water frame their talk, most of which the soundtrack obscures with Dinah Washington’s exquisite rendition of “I’m Through with Love.” It’s the dawning of Nicola’s Age of Aquarius, and his subsequent life in Norway, surrounded by Ginsberg-spouting naked hippies has an ineffably sweet quality that I, for one, missed when the film moves on. Back in Rome, Matteo becomes the classic example of a failed liberal do-gooder who regresses into arch-conservatism. He seeks refuge in rules and order, and the tragedy of Matteo is that for his embrace of conformity (rather, the appearance thereof) he still has no idea how to connect to the people around him or even to himself. Boni’s Matteo brought back memories of so many men I knew in college, the once-scruffy Justins or the Dustins (or whatever that year’s model happened to be named) who imagined that such an imposed externality as a state trooper haircut would quell the inner turmoil they didn’t want to sort through. To the best of my knowledge, it never worked. They were still just as tormented.

The Best of Youth, however, most certainly works. Rulli and Petraglia warrant kudos for the perceptive, observant truths in their screenplay, as does production designer Franco Ceraolo for an array of impressively “lived-in” sets. The musical choices are usually apt, especially Astor Piazzolla’s ripe, rich “Oblivion” as a recurring theme. Although the editing sometimes leaves us puzzling over connections, director Giordana’s touch almost never falters in the epiphanies, including one cathartic scene where two characters wordlessly stroll down a rural lane, trailed by someone whom they can’t see. What other movies-in-waiting the company may or may not distribute, Miramax deserves a round of applause for importing this miraculous film from Italy’s shores to ours. – NPT

May 18, 2004

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