The film tracks the lives of two brothers from Turin, Matteo and Nicola Carati, from 1966 to 2003, as their lives intersect with significant events in Italian history. The brothers first encounter a young woman with learning difficulties, Giorgia, and attempt to help her, first by freeing her from a mental institution, and running away with her, and then through the work of Nicola as a psychiatrist interested in the reform of Italy’s mental asylums, who finds her a place in an assisted living facility. The brothers’ lives play out against the historical landscape of 1970s and ’80s Italian terrorism and mafia violence: they choose opposing political ideologies, as Nicola joins left-wing student protests, while Matteo becomes a police officer more interested in the repression of disorder (and of his own emotions). Nicola meets Giulia, a talented pianist, and although they have a daughter, Sara, their relationship crumbles when Giulia chooses the path of terrorism over peaceful protest and goes on the run. Matteo meets Mirella, a Sicilian photographer who tries to pursue a relationship with him, but who is thwarted by his inability to connect with others emotionally.
Originally shown over two nights on Italian public television in 2003, La meglio gioventù then attained theatrical success in Italy and internationally, with its sweeping story of two brothers, Matteo and Nicola, whose lives intersect with the most significant events of recent Italian history. As such, the film fits firmly into Italian cinema’s tendency to revisit the 1970s and 1980s, particularly the terrorism that marked the so-called anni di piombo, or ‘years of lead’, a period that continues to be addressed in recent films such as Mio fratello è figlio unico/My Brother is an Only Child (Daniele Luchetti, 2007), Buongiorno, notte/Good Morning, Night (Marco Bellocchio, 2004), La prima linea/The Front Line (Renato De Maria, 2009), Romanzo criminale/Crime Novel (Michele Placido, 2005), and Il grande sogno/The Big Dream (Placido, 2009), several of which were also scripted by the powerhouse screenwriting team of Stefano Rulli and Sandro Petraglia.
Intended as a portrait of a generation, the generation of middle-class, left-wing Italians who came of age during the political turmoil of 1968, the film includes many direct references to key moments of recent Italian history, often by including archive footage: so we see the 1966 flood of Florence, the shooting of Pope John Paul II, the murder of anti-mafia magistrate Giovanni Falcone (the boys’ sister is a judge involved in the case), and of course the anni di piombo, evoked principally through the figure of Nicola’s wife Giulia, the passionate pianist-turned-Red Brigade terrorist, who chooses violent action over her husband and, significantly, her daughter. As an extreme figure, Giulia is aligned with the mysterious Matteo, who seeks out authoritarian policing as a way of giving some security and certainty to his life, but keeps his family and lovers at bay. The tragic fate of Matteo is one of the film’s enigmas, and allows for a rather soap-operatic romantic triangle to develop.
The film’s use of the conventions of the soap opera and the melodrama, in addition to its use of real footage, shows it to be reworking the tradition of politically engaged or impegnato Italian filmmaking in a middlebrow key: this middlebrow impegno is also on display in Giordana’s anti-mafia drama I cento passi/The 100 Steps (2000) and his family melodrama dealing with immigration Quando sei nato non puoi più nasconderti/Once You’re Born You Can No Longer Hide (2005). In addition, Giordana’s use of the trope of two brothers whose affective bond is compromized by opposing choices keys into a rich tradition of narratives of fraternal rivalry in Italian cinema, from Visconti’s Rocco e i suoi fratelli/Rocco and his Brothers (1960), to Bertolucci’s Novecento/1900 (1976) and Rosi’s Tre fratelli/Three Brothers (1980). Giordana’s interweaving of the familial and the political eventually gives way to an apolitical and somewhat utopian climax, as Nicola becomes involved with Mirella, Matteo’s ex-girlfriend, and the hopes of the Italian generation of ’68 live on in the child of Matteo and Mirella. The film’s ending, on a note of sublime, ahistorical beauty, appears to try and erase the contestation that marked the earlier parts, and to bring together ‘both sides’ of the troubled recent decades in consensual engagement with an imagined future.