Let's get this right out in the open: Last year's SIFF darling The Best of Youth has a running time of 6.13 hours. As in, 368 minutes. Or, to put it another way, something along the lines of a bazillion seconds. The attention span of viewers may actually have grown more tolerant over the years (this is, after all, an era where DVD has made it routine for folks to pound through an entire season of, say, She's the Sheriff over a single weekend) but still, releasing something this unapologetically mammoth takes serious stones. So it was with some trepidation that I popped in the DVD at the tail end of a hectic day, intending to watch just a few minutes before righteously passing out. Cue birds chirping, sunlight peeking, and me thinking, Whoa, I wanna watch that again. I'm not sure if a higher recommendation exists.

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Originally intended as six episodes for Italian television, and later compiled into two features for theatrical release (which is how it played at SIFF), director Marco Tullio Giordana's epic begins in '60s Rome, with two college-aged brothers, one bookish and devoted to the family (Luigi Lo Cascio, whose amiable intensity recalls the golden days of De Niro), the other (Alessio Boni) more passionate and increasingly subject to the demons in his head. And so it goes for the next four decades, as we follow them through feast and famine, radically divergent career paths (as psychologist and military-man-turned-cop, respectively), and all manner of fraying family ties. The whole Cain and Abel sibling-rivalry thing has been done to death, of course, but one of Giordana's considerable triumphs is the way he works this to his advantage, using whiskery melodramatic staples to digress into a whole slew of differing scenarios and moods. (A tense sequence involving Lo Cascio's terrorist-sympathizer girlfriend, for example, trumps Spielberg's Munich in a quarter of the time.) Messy as it sometimes seems, the series works in the engrossing fashion of a good pulpy novel. At the risk of corn, you really get to live with these characters over the years, in ways both enlightening and devastating.

There are a few dead spots along the way, to be sure (mostly at the beginning of the second installment), and the final reorganization of the familial strata may feel a little too convenient to some viewers. Ultimately, the success of the film boils down to a final make-or-break moment, with a beyond-the-grave benediction that in less sure hands could leave the entire enterprise smacking of Velveeta. More credit to the filmmaker, then, that he runs with it, exercising the same delicate bullishness that informs the entire saga. Of the many things this super-sized opus accomplishes, the best may be its last glimmering realization: that when you get right down to it, every family's tale is a ghost story.

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