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Two family stories from the upscale side of Europe, The Best of Youth and Brothers focus tightly on a cluster of relatives, with each movie revolving around a pair of divergent siblings. The first film, an intimate six-hour saga that surveys some 35 years of recent history, depicts its characters as shaping and being shaped by a series of historical events. The second treats the larger world primarily as a threat to domestic stability. Or, to put it another way, The Best of Youth is political, Brothers psychotherapeutic.
Originally made for Italian television and now divided into two approximately three-hour episodes, The Best of Youth is indeed long, but it’s hardly a tough slog. Director Marco Tullio Giordana renders Sandro Petraglia and Stefano Rulli’s script as a series of brief, brisk scenes that entertainingly interlace melodrama, travelogue, and current events. Introduced in its native Rome in 1966, the Carati family encompasses two parents, four children, and—later—a variety of spouses, lovers, and grandkids. The spotlight is trained mostly on Nicola (Luigi Lo Cascio) and Matteo (Alessio Boni), both handsome college students when the tale commences. Playfully, the film opens with Dad’s attempt to get Matteo to help him move a black-and-white TV set. (In just a few years, Italy would be the first European country to get commercial television, thanks to media mogul and current Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi—who also brought the once-sheltered nation such innovations as topless game shows and now exercises control over the state-owned Radiotelevisione Italiana, which produced The Best of Youth.)
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An intense, self-important lit major who’s studying for his final exams, Matteo refuses to help his father, leaving the task to Nicola and his friend Carlo (Fabrizio Gifuni). The three young men, plus a fourth, are supposed to take a summer trip together, but Matteo has a new priority: He’s taken a part-time job at an asylum and is obsessed with an abused (and beautiful) young patient, Giorgia (The Son’s Room’s Jasmine Trinca). After ending his academic career by stalking out of an oral exam, Matteo convinces Nicola, who’s a medical student, to help him return Giorgia to her parents. This good deed ends badly when Giorgia is detained by the police. (She won’t reappear in the film for hours.) Both brothers are profoundly affected: Matteo joins the army and withdraws from his family, ultimately becoming a sexily aloof cop; Nicola decides to become a psychiatrist and reform Italy’s mental institutions, which he eventually does.
The two brothers are reunited by the story’s first major historical event, the massive late-1966 flood of Florence. Matteo arrives as a soldier, and Nicola—who’s been enjoying a hippie holiday in Norway—as a volunteer. Among the other helpers is Giulia (Sonia Bergamasco), a brilliant (and beautiful) math student and pianist. Nicola follows her back to Turin, where they join in ’70s student and labor protests and have a child, Sara. While her lover becomes a liberal reformer, Giulia just gets more angry at her country. She abandons Nicola and Sara to join the Red Brigades, whose members plot assassinations of businessmen and bureaucrats. (Although she is Matteo’s ideological opposite, Giulia, by forsaking her family, reveals herself as his psychological twin.) Soon thereafter, Carlo marries the brothers’ nurturing (and beautiful) younger sister, Francesca (Valentina Carnelutti), and becomes a banking bigwig—just the sort of guy the Red Brigades would target.
In 1977, Matteo goes to Sicily to battle the Mafia and meets photographer and aspiring librarian Mirella (Maya Sansa); the spirited (and beautiful) Stromboli native is such an ideal soul mate that he flees from her, but they meet again five years later after both move to Rome—where channel-surfing is now possible. After Matteo vanishes for good, Nicola sees a picture of his brother on a poster for a photo exhibition in Milan; he tracks down the portraitist, Mirella, who’s returned to Sicily to cover the infamous 1992 Mafia murder of a judge and his bodyguards.
Eventually, Mirella becomes a member of the clan, which is again based mostly in Rome. There, grown-up (and beautiful) Sara (Camilla Filippi) rejects her parents’ preoccupation with a brave new future by studying art restoration.
When the story ends in 2000, both the Caratis and Italy are much richer than they were in 1966—and much less conflicted about it than during the Red Brigades era.
Blame the script, the direction, or Berlusconi’s postideological Italy—not the impeccable acting—but the film loses its bite as its second half winds down. Though life gets easier for most of the characters, the soap-operatic contrivances become more conspicuous. As if to emphasize the change, the movie’s final scene is the worst thing about it. Though its sentimentality is inexcusable, it’s also understandable. After all, these characters have been through a lot—they deserve true love and some quiet years to mull over their eventful lives.
Not that they look as if they’re ready for retirement. Named after a poem by Pier Paolo Pasolini—the subject of a previous Giordana film—The Best of Youth barely tries to age its players. There are some gray hairs but none of the latex wrinkles and wattles that Hollywood employs in multigenerational chronicles. That’s probably just as well, although it’s a little disconcerting when someone—usually female—resurfaces after 10 or 15 years unchanged save for a hairstyle. The effect is to make the characters seem like gods strolling through turbulent times that pummel lesser beings. Yet that’s not entirely inappropriate: The movie provides plenty of social history but also alludes to Italy’s cinematic legacy, including such landmarks as Luchino Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers, Ettore Scola’s The Family, and Roberto Rossellini’s Stromboli. And you could hardly expect the symbolic descendants of Alain Delon, Vittorio Gassman, and Ingrid Bergman to resemble ordinary mortals.
The smaller-scale Brothers transpires mostly in the modest suburban home of upstanding Michael (Ulrich Thomsen), sweet Sarah (Danish-born Connie Nielsen, in her first Danish film), and their two young daughters, Natalia (Sarah Juel Werner) and Camilla (Rebecca Logstrup). Director Susanne Bier and screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen are graduates of the Dogma school and have retained the movement’s harsh natural light and handheld-digital-video camerawork to prove it. But this is not one of those Lars von Trier– cursed households with horrible secrets—or at least it isn’t until after Michael, a major in the Danish Army, is sent to Afghanistan as part of a U.N. peacekeeping force.
Michael’s hard-drinking younger brother, Jannik (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), is introduced when he’s released from prison after serving time for battering a woman in a botched bank robbery. Michael collects—and accepts—him, but the siblings’ parents have given up on Jannik, and Sarah instinctively abhors him. Then Michael’s chopper is shot down, the perfect son is declared dead, and Jannik instinctively sees his opportunity. He renovates the half-done kitchen Michael never got around to finishing and charms the girls. He might even get lucky with Sarah, if only because she—instinctively again—now perceives Jannik as her only physical connection to her lost husband.
Michael isn’t permanently lost, however. He’s actually been taken prisoner by a Taliban-like group and is soon rescued. But while in captivity, he had a Deer Hunter moment, which has sent him back to Denmark in shock. At home, Michael is belligerent, unpredictable, and more comfortable with the whiskey bottle than with his wife and children. The new rapport between his family and Jannik, the loser he never saw as competition, just makes him angrier. Michael has, in short, turned into his brother—a tidy dramatic twist the script pursues to its logical conclusion. Ultimately, Sarah must rise to the challenge of restraining her husband—not such a stretch for the actress who played tough chicks in such films as Gladiator, Demonlover, and Basic. In fact, viewers who know Nielsen’s career well may find it harder to accept her as a self-effacing helpmate than as the steelier creature she becomes after Michael loses it.
Like Bier and Jensen’s first collaboration, Open Hearts, Brothers is fundamentally a traditional domestic melodrama—albeit one animated by a shockingly sudden moment of violence and given a rough stylistic edge that could be mistaken for veracity. The actors rise to the occasion, with full-bore hostility from Thomsen, Lie Kaas, and the bracingly unpleasant Werner. Yet the dissolution of the happy family is expressed through predictable symbolism—watch out for that kitchen!—and the dubious promise that the truth will set Michael free is left for an unfilmed epilogue. It’s not that there are no second acts in Dogma-certified lives. It’s just that von Trier’s disciples aren’t very interested in what happens after the shouting (and the shooting) is over.CP