Part of the reason for the film's success is its length. The film is long. Very long. When it was released in theaters last summer, it played as two separate films, requiring admission for each. Originally made as a miniseries for Italian television, the film runs over 6 hours long. Watching this in a theater would require some fortitude, planning, investment, but watching it at home, on DVD, allows a more leisurely pace; you can watch a bit, take a break, watch a bit more, make some dinner, continue watching, maybe continue on the next night. Even though the film follows the lives of two brothers throughout, there are very distinct `chapters' to their lives, the one indication of the projects origins as a television miniseries. It retains some of its episodic quality, giving you good indications of when one subplot is winding down and when another will begin.
Because of the length, we spend a lot of time with these characters; we feel we get to know them. At the end of the journey, I defy you to not have used at least one tissue, probably more. The combination of good acting, engaging storytelling and the film's duration allows us to get up close and personal with these people. As we follow their lives over the course of four decades, we witness the good and the bad events, and the bad will probably bring you to tears.
We first meet Nicola (Luigi Lo Cascio) and Matteo (Alessio Boni) in the early 60s. Each is about to take their exams at the University and will then go on an extended trip with their friends for the summer. That's the plan anyway. Matteo is studying literature, Nicola medicine. To earn some extra cash for the trip, Matteo takes a job at the local asylum; the job is to take Giorgia (Jasmine Trinca), a young woman, out for walks, fresh air, etc. Matteo soon realizes she is one of many patients who are receiving electroshock therapy and decides to take Giorgia back to her parents, in a remote Italian village. He enlists Nicola's reluctant help; they will make a quick detour and then rejoin their friends at a later stage. But this detour doesn't go as planned and their lives begin to move in different directions. This only scratches the surface of the events throughout the film, their lives take many divergent paths throughout, but it should give you a feel of the tone of the film.
All of the actors are good. As we follow them over the course of decades, they don't seem to age much, with the exception of more gray hair. But that is beside the point; they mature, they act differently as humans, and they grow. Luigi Lo Cascio plays Nicola, the more level headed of the two brothers. Eventually, he becomes a psychiatrist, adding a level of understanding to his character. As he deals with problems, both in his life and others, he remains calm, collected and a little impassive, showing little emotion. When he does show emotion, we really feel these moments with him. His few and rare emotional outbursts signal to us that something serious is happening. Pay attention.
Alessio Boni plays Matteo, the more emotional, eccentric brother. Matteo studies literature, but after a disastrous exam, decides to join the Army. Then the police. His jobs, and his nature, cause him to become emotionally distant, letting out his aggressions at the wrong times, causing him to get into trouble. Boni is a very striking actor. He has the charisma of a young Harrison Ford or Russell Crowe. In fact, in the right hands, I could see him making the leap to American films. He isn't the most handsome guy to ever grace the big screen, but the combination of his looks, charisma and acting make him almost mesmerizing to watch.
Over the course of the film, many characters come and go and all of these are played very well. It would take too much space to list every character and actor, but they are all universally interesting and believable.
The one false note in the film comes when one character joins the Red Brigade and then becomes an assassin. This part of the story is entirely too sensationalistic. Like it was included to make the story a little more suspenseful, a little more interesting, to garner more viewers. Perhaps this type of thing happened, but the rest of the film is about a large extended family. It doesn't fit and it doesn't work.
"The Best of Youth" takes an investment; in time and emotion, but the payoff is equal. You will be rewarded with an in-depth look into the lives and struggles of a large, extended family in Italy. Even better yet? No one in the family is involved in the Mafia.