Dir: Marco Tullio Giordana. Italy. 2003. 366mins.

Marco Tullio Giordana's new film, which follows two Italian brothers between 1966 and 2002, is remarkable for three reasons. Firstly, it is just over six hours long. Secondly, it does not drag and is a compelling weave of micro and macro history. And thirdly, despite the inherent difficulties of distributing a six-hour epic, La Meglio Gioventu has posted good results at the sluggish Italian summer box office, where both its three-hour segments are in the top 10 at time of writing: after four weeks, Part One is now playing on 39 screens after four weeks and has taken $386,897 (Euros 342,404); Part Two, after three weeks, is playing on 32 screens and has taken $198,101 (Euros 175,319). Comparisons have been made with German epic Heimat, or with Bernardo Bertolucci's two-part flop Novecento, but La Meglio Gioventu is more personal, and more intimate in scale, than either. Outside of Italy, territories such as France - where Ocean films released it last week - and Spain should respond. Elsewhere, it may return to the format it was originally produced for, selling to specialist satellite and cable TV networks.

Co-produced by RAI, Italy's state broadcaster, La Meglio Gioventu was originally designed as a six-part TV drama. But the finished product was continually pushed down the schedule - possibly something to do with producer Angelo Barbagallo's long-time production relationship with Italian director and political activist Nanni Moretti, outspoken in his criticisms of Italian prime minister and media magnate Silvio Berlusconi. Repackaged as an unlikely theatrical contender, La Meglio Gioventu was given a leg-up at this year's Cannes, where it won the Altadis award in the Un Certain Regard sidebar. An unusual release strategy adopted by RAI-linked distributor 01 Distribution, has helped tickle audience interest at home, where ticketholders for Part One can receive a substantial discount for Part Two when they produce their stubs.

The film starts in the mid 1960s as two brothers, Nicola (Luigi Lo Cascio) and Matteo (Alessio Boni), go their separate ways after an encounter with a mentally disturbed girl, Giorgia (Jasmine Trinca, the daughter in Nanni Moretti's The Son's Room). The easy-going Nicola becomes a psychiatrist and a campaigner for the civil rights of asylum patients; Matteo deals with the anger he has bottled up inside by becoming a policeman. This rather transparent premise narrates Italy's years of student protest, Red Brigade terrorism, Mafia strong-arm tactics and political corruption from two opposing sides. Along the way, the characters find themselves in the right place at the right time with suspicious regularity: in Florence for the 1966 floods, in Turin during the student and industrial arrest of the late 1960s/early1970s; and in Palermo in 1992 when judge Giovanni Falcone was assassinated by a Mafia bomb.

But the interlock of big history and personal stories only occasionally jars. And it's the latter, the intimate details, that audiences watching. After a shaky first two hours, La Meglio Gioventu becomes an absorbing, high-class, historical soap opera, with well-written characters buoyed up bravura performances from Trinca, Boni and Adriana Asti as the mother.

Some of the photography is fairly conventional, but cinematographer Roberto Forza avoids excessive TV flatness through inventive use of interior lighting and off-centre framing. There are witty cultural references too, like using a screening of Un Homme Et Un Femme as the backdrop for a secret meeting between two Red Brigade terrorists. The one big flaw is the failure of the make-up department to age any of the characters effectively.

Prod co: BI. Bi. Film
Co prod:
Rai Fiction
Int'l sales:
Rai Trade
Angelo Barbagallo
Sandro Petraglia, Stefano Rulli
Roberto Forza
Prod des:
Franco Ceraolo
Roberto Missiroli
Main cast:
Luigi Lo Cascio, Alessio Boni, Adriana Asti, Jasmine Trinca, Sonia Bergamasco, Fabrizio Gifuni, Maya Sansa, Alessio Boni, Camilla Filippi