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'Best of Youth' touts the virtues of dignity

THE BEST OF YOUTH — *** 1/2 — Luigi Lo Cascio, Alessio Boni; in Italian, with English subtitles; rated R (profanity, brief nudity).One subject of "The Best of Youth," a six-hour film in two parts, is the transformation of Italy into a modern consumer society. In the montage of newspaper images that introduces Part 1 the major symbol of this change is television, and one of the first things we see is a boxy old set being hauled up the stairs of a Rome apartment building.

This is only fitting, since "The Best of Youth" was originally made as a miniseries for Italian television and was broadcast in several other European countries after being released theatrically in Italy. Its genesis as a multi-episode small-screen epic accounts for its length, but also makes it easier to take. The director, Marco Tullio Giordana, is motivated by generosity — toward both his characters and his audience — rather than by self-indulgence.

The story he has to tell, written by Sandro Petraglia and Stefano Rulli, is full of nuance and complexity, but it is also as accessible and engrossing as a grand 19th-century novel. Yes, "The Best of Youth" is long. But "War and Peace" is long. "Middlemarch" is long. Life is also long, and there is so much life in these six hours — 37 years, to the extent that you can quantify it — that you may marvel at Giordana's economy.

The film begins in Rome in 1966, in the bustling apartment of the middle-class Carati family. There are four children, but most of the attention focuses on Nicola and Matteo, who are studying for their exams and whose contrasting temperaments structure the crowded, expansive drama that follows.

Nicola (Luigi Lo Cascio), who is studying medicine, is the more cheerful, while Matteo (Alessio Boni), a would-be philosopher, is volatile and rebellious. He flunks his exams on purpose and impulsively joins the army. While Nicola and Matteo never waver in their love for each other, their lives take radically different paths.

Despite its unblinking attention to the destructive forces at large in Italian society — from the Red Brigades terror and the political scandals of the 1970s to the anti-Mafia campaigns (and further political scandals) of more recent years — the spirit of "The Best of Youth" is quietly, wryly optimistic. Its political point of view turns out to be precisely the tolerant, middle-class humanism, with its belief in human goodness and the possibility of social progress, that the postwar generation claimed to rebel against.

Nicola's professional life, which occasionally drifts into the foreground of the story, involves him in efforts to improve the treatment of the mentally ill, and this rather specialized cause is the clearest statement of the film's central idea, which is that a commitment to human dignity is ideology enough.

"The Best of Youth" is rated R for language and brief nudity. Running time: 366 minutes.