I watched The Best of Youth (on DVD) much in the same way as Italians did when it first premiered on Italian TV - over the course of four nights; like a great novel, you don't want to leave the characters, this world, but you want to savor it, leave a little more for the next night. It's a rare feeling, surpassed by very few other films or series in recent memory. And yet, you can very easily lose track of time passing while watching it, so transcendent is the flow of it all. The length of the film is one of its strengths, as it has the time to develop its many characters richly. Ultimately, it's one of the most beautiful and truly moving experiences I've ever had watching a film.
The trajectory of each of the main characters as they make their way through their adult lives is so psychologically astute that you will constantly forget they are fictional, so caught up in their world, their emotions, their growth.
One of the many magnificent achievements of The Best of Youth is how economical it is, even over the course of its epic six hour length - each scene is carefully chosen, each moment a part of the greater picture, each a revelation of character. The story also interlaces with Italian political history over the past few decades, student uprisings, political unrest, assasinations, corruption and - most distressingly - abuse within mental health care facilities. (The story of the young woman, Giorgia, whom Matteo and Nicola encounter after she's been in electric shock therapy and deeply scarred, is particularly touching.)
It also manages to sidestep the trap that often fells other films that try to cover the course of many years in characters' lives - using the same actors playing themselves young and as they age, but miraculously, their aging rarely feels contrived. They look natural, and more importantly, their psychological development is perfectly realized. But never mind all that while you're watching it - just let go.
As Nicola, Luigi Lo Cascio is startlingly good, natural, never appears to be acting. He carries the weight of this film and the plot - which occcasionally veers dangerously close to melodrama but never stops feeling real - on his shoulders, playing a character that is often passive yet reflects just enough change, especially by the end, that it's astoundingly moving. (Lo Cascio is also in La Bestia nel cuore - a.k.a., Don't Tell, along with his Best of Youth co-star Alessio Boni.)
Other random thoughts: I don't think I'll ever forget Maya Sansa's (Mirella) luminous smile; the film serves as an incredible travelogue for the Italian country, giving you a three-dimensional feel for each place (not to mention Norway, which also figures prominently in the film); the music score is lovely, even if a couple of the pieces are a little repetitive (how could they not be given the length of the film) - but the score always adds to a scene, doesn't detract.
By the end, as a character says, ultimately, "everything is beautiful." Check all cynicism at the door and you will be transported.