The Best of Youth (15), A Thousand Months (12A)

Oh brother, wherefore art thou?

In his book The Dark Heart of Italy, Tobias Jones speaks of arriving in Parma in 1999, at a time when the country was engaged in a "collective historical debate, as people tried to remember or forget what had gone on in Italy only a few years or decades before". The period under scrutiny, in courtrooms, the media, in bars and homes, was the anni di piombo, "the years of lead", between the late Sixties and early Eighties, when Italy was ripped apart by violent protests and terrorism. Add the malign presence of the Mafia and the widespread Establishment corruption that ate into the Nineties, and we're talking about one of the most turbulent periods of Italian history - one that resonates, still, through the Berlusconi era.

It's no wonder, then, that Marco Tullio Giordana's six-hour The Best of Youth (15), originally conceived for Italian television, has struck such a chord with its target audience. With a theatrical release, we can see what all the fuss was about. And it's fair to say that Giordana's saga, charting the fate of a generation over more than 30 tumultuous years, is, truly, an experience.

The story opens in 1966, in Rome, where the brothers Nicola and Matteo Carati (Luigi Lo Cascio and Alessio Boni) are studying for their university exams. Though chalk and cheese, the brothers have an evident bond and the mood, at first, is optimistic. Their lives are shadowed, however, by a pall of anxiety, both personal and social: despite being a gifted academic, on a whim Matteo flunks his exam and quits his course, displaying a self-destructiveness that will permeate the family's lives; while Nicola's professor, on giving him an A, instructs him to take it elsewhere. "Leave Italy," he says. "It is a beautiful but useless place, destined to die."

Helping at a psychiatric hospital, Matteo takes pity on, and falls for, one of the patients, Giorgia (Jasmine Trinca), undiagnosed and subjected to electric shock therapy. He snatches her from the hospital and resolves to return her to her parents, with his brother's help. The failure of this mission sends the Caratis on their respective paths: Nicola is to become a psychiatrist himself, while Matteo - seemingly negating all he believes in - joins the army, then the police.

Thereafter the film follows the brothers, their family and friends, lives diverging and intersecting against the backdrop of events that mark the political and social upheaval of the country: the student protests of 1968 and the more violent labour protests in 1974; the reaction against the hideous abuse of the mentally ill and the advent of the "anti-psychiatry" championed by Franco Basaglia; the onslaught of the Red Brigade; the massive job losses at Fiat in 1980; the murder of Judge Falcone by the Mafia in Palermo, in 1992; and the "clean hands" initiative against corruption in the Nineties.

Giordana's approach, and that of his scriptwriters Sandro Petragia and Stefano Rulli, is not one of explication or analysis. They don't attempt to explain the powerful co-existence of communism and fascism in one country, or the reasons for the economic crisis; and like Marco Bellocchio's Buongiorno Notte, they don't attempt to fathom the motives of the Red Brigade.

Instead, they simply reveal history through the prism of personal experience. Sometimes this is explicit: as in the clash between the policeman Matteo and Giulia (Sonia Bergamasco), Nicola's spirited lover who is being drawn towards the terrorists; or when their friend Carlo, who works for a bank, becomes a Red Brigade target. For much of the time, though, the allusions are confind to the everyday, such as the game of "merchant in the market" (a sort of monopoly), when Carlo - the idealist economist in a world of swindlers - is asked to take charge of the game, as "someone who won't cheat".

The film suggests how character both reflects and is shaped by society. The ebullient, free-spirited Nicola learns to his cost that allowing loved ones unlimited freedom can do more harm than good; Matteo's unfathomable sorrow, while never explained, is redolent of the malaise eating away at the soul of his country. When Matteo and Giulia first meet there is the sort of electric charge one assumes to be attraction: what we later realise is that it is recognition, between people who are ready to throw away all they hold dear, without really understanding why.

While Nicola gives the film its spirit, Matteo is its tragic heart. Around them characters come and go, shaping their history: Giulia, Giorgia, their parents and their sister Francesca, a magistrate who gets caught up in the Falcone assassination; and a photographer, Mirella (Maya Sansa), whose presence reaffirms the equilibrium of the brothers' relationship.

Comparison has already been made with The Godfather (towards the end the characters, perhaps too knowingly, even swap Brando impersonations); while Italian cinema has itself produced such personal/social sagas, not least Visconti's Rocco and his Brothers, and Bertolucci's Novocento. Perverse as it may be, I suddenly recalled Rich Man, Poor Man, which in the Seventies introduced the mini-series as a popular format in the US (as well as the career of a certain Nick Nolte). Now, Rich Man, Poor Man was based on a pulp novel and was often cheesily melodramatic. But the story, spanning the second world war and the Sixties and also founded on the contrasting fates and personalities of two brothers, packed the same, uncommon emotional punch as Giordana's film.

It is only in the last hour or so that The Best of Youth succumbs to the weaknesses of its original format, the time available allowing Giordana to slacken, tie up too many knots, strive for the sort of perfect resolution that cinema at its best does not require. That said, for half a day it is absorbing, thought-provoking and intensely, ridiculously moving.

Furniture plays an integral role in Moroccan Faouzi Bensaidi's first feature, A Thousand Months (12). Mehdi, a seven-year-old boy recently arrived at a village in the Atlas mountains, is given responsibility for looking after his teacher's chair at all times when the man isn't actually sitting on it. This is seen as a privilege (go figure) that the boy embraces, not least by giving himself a comfortable seat in the mountains from which to watch the distant city lights. However, schoolyard jealousy and problems at home, where his grandfather is so poor that he has had to sell every piece of furniture he owns, turn the honour into a liability.

In other circumstances, such a scenario could be the basis for a farce; here, it is the tragi-comic foreground of a very serious film. Bensaidi observes the month of Ramadan in the lives of a community which is poverty-stricken and drought-afflicted, for which "fasting" is a reprieve from "starving", and over which corruption and political oppression hover like vultures. Part of his considerable skill is to combine the pathos of such extreme hardship with so much humour and humanity. It's sound judgement, matched by a wonderful eye.

Jonathan Romney is away

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