The Best of Youth

DVD Watch

The Best of Youth

Miramax, $29.99

"Are you looking for mystery?" asks Matteo (Alessio Boni) of an attractive young woman (Maya Sansa) taking photographs at a Sicilian dockside cafe. "You have to find the soul," he advises her, and evidently she does, because moments later, she snaps a quick picture of him that some 20 years on becomes a major plot point. Nearly two-and-a-quarter hours into The Best of Youth and still waiting to be caught up in something called "epic sweep," the idea of which afflicts American movie critics when confronted with films that are long, episodically historical, and European, my attention was grabbed by this bit of significant dialogue for its apparent offer of unintentional auto-critique. Too bad I had nearly four hours more to watch for full confirmation.

But even at six hours and change, length isn't the problem, since its pace is brisk and its minutes are packed with more than enough incident to justify the running time. The story's own search for the soul, however, is confounded by its makers' satisfaction with surfaces. When the photographer asks that cafe aesthetician what he means, he points out small physical details on a couple of people sitting nearby and proceeds to make sweeping conclusions about their lives and psychologies. The girl might not be completely convinced of his sagacity, but no matter: The Best of Youth basically follows his m.o. as it plays out important narrative shifts through moments of rigged small drama and strategic banality, skipping over actual nuance or complexity to arrive at the same contrivances that soap opera reaches through histrionics.

If the long form promises attention to detail and intensity of character relationships, the ecstatic critical reception since its premiere at Cannes promises all that, plus history, politics, and something like transcendence. But the trouble with The Best of Youth, as with so many big films that strive for "novelistic" effects (and this one might be the better-behaved little brother of Bertolucci's 1900), is that in their craze to pile on events, they forget that novels are made of more than plots and that real cinema does far more than dutifully photograph the actions and dialogue of a screenplay.

Here, electricity between performers is only intermittent, the cinematography plods, and characters' engagement with cultural currents boils down to either easy signposts (Motown hits and readings of "Howl" to represent the Sixties) or plot twists to gin up dramatic irony. (I wonder who she'll have to assassinate now that she's joined the Red Brigades!) It adds up to one of those yarns that people seem never to tire of, in which two idealistic brothers, Matteo and Nicola (Luigi Lo Cascio) are torn in different political and social directions by the turbulence of the times over a span of four decades. Not that such a premise is exhausted, but at this date and over so many hours, it needs to look for a little more mystery.

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The Best of Youth, Miramax, The Films of Bela Tarr, Facets

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