Over this past weekend, Chris and I watched "Il Postino" ("The Postman") (I'd seen in twice, Chris had never seen it) Saturday night and then - in a marathon movie-watching session broken up only twice for food and runs to the bathroom - my mom joined us for the six-hour long "La meglio gioventù" ("The Best of Youth") on Sunday. Though I'm still not dreaming in Italian, even after eight hours of Italian films, Chris and I exchanged many a glance during both movies when random vocabulary words, which our teacher has been drilling into our heads, came up in the dialogue. Oh, so you mean this stuff really is applicable? Wow...
"Il Postino," from 1994, is a wonderfully quiet and sweet movie about (ahem) a postman called Mario on a small southern Italian island when Chilean poet Pablo Neruda is exiled there. Neruda befriends Mario and teaches him to appreciate the poetry of everyday life (especially metaphors), and Mario begs for the poet's help in winning the heart of the local beauty, Beatrice. I know nothing about Neruda, including whether or not he was actually exiled on an Italian island, but the movie made me want to read his poetry... Or at least want to want to read it. I've not had much luck engaging with poetry, and am generally reluctant to read it in case I end up feeling like a dunce for not understanding it (more common than I'd like to admit, unfortunately).
At any rate, the movie is sweet, the southern Italian accents are soft around the edges, and the scenery is beautiful. One poignant postscript is that the actor who plays Mario, Massimo Troisi, had apparently suffered from heart problems his whole life and collapsed two weeks into making the movie - he needed a heart transplant. Troisi had been the driving force behind the film (co-writing, co-directing and starring in it), and kept working despite his ill health. He died of a heart attack the day after filming was complete.
"La meglio gioventù" originally aired on Italian television, so far as I can tell, which would explain the six-plus hour running time. It has, however, gone on to be played at film festivals around the world (usually over two nights) to glowing reviews. It's the story of two brothers, Nicola and Matteo, and the people in their lives, and it spans nearly 40 years (from 1966 through the early 21st century). After something early in the story goes rather unlike they'd planned, they deal with the repercussions in very different ways and take very different paths, though they continue to collide throughout the film. Nicola ends up becoming a psychiatrist after backpacking through Norway and some time with a radical Italian political group. Matteo joins the Italian army and eventually becomes a police officer. The backdrop is many of the major historical events in Italy, including the 1966 flood in Florence (and many others that would be familiar to anyone who knows Italian history - sadly, I'm not one of them), which serve the story as if history itself is a character.
The praise for this epic film is almost universally ecstatic. Several reviews mention two things we certainly found to be true - that you feel very much like you know the family by the end of the film (so much so that even after six hours we were sad to see it end), and that it doesn't feel anything like it's six hours long. For example, it takes almost two hours for you to really feel invested in the characters and the storyline, and yet that doesn't feel extraordinary at all. Just think about that for a moment - it takes the length of most complete films to really get to know the characters, and you're only one-third of the way through the thing! It sounds crazy, I know, but believe me - if you find this on your local video store's shelves, you won't be sorry if you pick it up. You might feel the need to run around the block afterwards, but that's your business.
(Incidentally, this Saturday, we're extending the Italian film run - we're going to see "The Second Wedding Night," which is part of this year's Portland International Film Festival.)
Update: I got some more information from my Italian friend Alessandro about "La meglio gioventù" - he says that it was "originally produced for TV, then refused to be aired on it, finally it was displayed around on festivals and cinemas. Only after the big success on cinemas it was aired on TV." Thanks, Ale!