La Meglio gioventù
starring Luigi Lo Cascio, Alessio Boni, Adriana Asti, Sonia Bergamasco
screenplay by Sandro Petraglia, Stefano Rulli
directed by Marco Tullio Giordana
starring Liv Ullmann, Erland Josephson, Börje Ahlstedt, Julia Dufvenius
written and directed by Ingmar Bergman
by Walter Chaw Television is the great bogey of the modern era. Newton Minnow's vast wasteland. Marshall McLuhan's "massage." The corruptor of youth and the opiate of the people. The glass teat. Although it's been excoriated as the prime example of what happens to art when commerce intrudes upon it, when the moneymen at the gates break through to undermine the best intentions of television artists yearning to break free, I think it's more complicated than that. I think that television, like any other popular medium, is a cathode stethoscope held against the chest of the spirit of the world--a conduit to both what's good and what's venal in any culture. There are as many, maybe more, classics being produced for television now as there were during its Golden Age (and the good old days weren't always good, besides), it's just that we have more chaff to sift through before we get to the wheat nowadays--but more wheat, too. Say this for TV: it seems more capable of recognizing a hunger for quality than film does. Credit the smaller budgets and quicker turnarounds--something that's put cinema in the catch-up position in the early years of the new millennium.
Just "Deadwood" in the United States is miracle enough--the appearance of new Shakespeare in a western setting, it should be required viewing for every humanities undergrad in the country. Taken with other homegrown product like "Arrested Development", it justifies an optimism for the future of television. If we accept the lion's share of criticism for our junk culture, we should accept a commensurate amount of praise when we manage to create something eternal. Meanwhile, look to two small-screen imports washing ashore as theatrical presentations within weeks of each other in most US markets as signs of intelligent life abroad. Distributed on these shores in two parts, the first is Marco Tullio Giordana's epic The Best of Youth (La Meglio gioventù), a glorious historical soap opera all of broad gestures and intimate details spanning from the '60s to the present day. There's hardly a false note in close to 400 minutes of material, but more miraculously, it's that rare film that speaks frankly about the failings of man in his world yet maintains a defiant optimism that the actions of individuals matter. Besides being somehow too short at its length, it's humanist enough to act as a curative to the cinema of nihilism that has of late (as in the past four years or so) begun to infect our sea to shining sea.
We spend our four decades with brothers Nicola (Luigi Lo Cascio) and Mateo (Alessio Boni). Smaller, darker Nicola is headed for medical school while taller, dashing Mateo champions, as the film opens, the beautiful, troubled girl Giorgia (Jasmine Trinka), springing her from a mental institution and her electroshock therapy for an aborted flight to her father in the countryside. Broken by this, Mateo enters the army while Nicola gets a job at a sawmill and becomes, by his proximity to the struggling class, embroiled in the activist counterculture. They are perhaps the very insurgents to which Nicola's academic advisor was referring in advising that Nicola escape Italy, because Italy is doomed to eat itself. The Best of Youth is broadly political at times, but never with that Forrest Gump aesthetic you expect as shorthand in sprawling narratives like these. It's always more interested in the way an individual is shaped by his circumstances, and of how that character, freshly-minted, in turn shapes the world around him. Giordana obviously has a knack for managing a huge, ungainly project with a surplus of grace and a desire to avoid the easy story, though his most vital gift may be his affection for his creations and his country. You can see it in the rapturous landscapes, and more in the connection that Nicola and Mateo have to it: the line pure and true back to the green youth they spent there when the world wasn't as complicated by the tragedy of living.
A kind-of sequel to 1973's Scenes from a Marriage, Ingmar Bergman, at the age of 85, provided Saraband for Swedish television, reuniting Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson as his doomed couple Marianne and Johan. Composed of ten monologues or dialogues (like Scenes, there's never more than a duet onscreen), the picture opens with Marianne speaking of an irresistible desire to visit her long-estranged husband at his cottage--one that he now shares with a son, Henrik, and granddaughter, Karin. Penniless cellists, they live in the guest house but descend, in the picture's one genuinely false note, to a place so unjustified and unsavoury that it's rendered useless as a metaphor. Always guilty of being stagebound and moribund, Bergman falls back on his worst instincts in Saraband, distilling August Strindberg into a product so concentrated that at less than a quarter of its length, it's harder to take in one sitting than the entirety of The Best of Youth. Neither is it completely redeemed by its performances; I like Josephson, but Ullman goes through the paces in high Judi Dench style: adorable, rotund, matronly, and not trying very hard.
But when Saraband works, it works based on the strength of Bergman's ironclad iconoclasm. He refuses to be conventional and thus, like ideological (if in no other way) contemporary Jean-Luc Godard, he's morphed from the shadows and light of his masterpieces into the ugly digital video gloss of their swan songs--a shift in medium that mirrors Marianne's opening monologue (addressed through the fourth wall as she sits at a table going through grainy photographs) and serves as a call to a muse perhaps best identified as a recognition that images are only ever spurs to imperfect memory. It's an old man's understanding that art is no substitute for experience, but it's also an old artist's understanding that art is the closest we can ever come to replicating it. If there's a strong sense of melancholy in Saraband, find it not in how Johan hates his son, or how Henrik loves his dead wife through his emotionally stunted daughter, but rather in how the desire to recapture the best of youth is inextricably married to the knowledge that the closest we can come is painfully inadequate. Bergman's ugliest picture, aesthetically, it's as dependent on what it says by the fact of itself as Persona or The Seventh Seal: it's a film artist turning out the lights on video. Saraband's message is its medium (at least 9/10ths of it)--and how much we should temper criticism of television when it brings us the last word from one of the cinema's most influential filmmakers is the question of the hour. Originally published: August 10, 2005.