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Italian Film Festival to open with ‘The Best Years’; book launch for ‘Funny Thing About Minnesota …’

ALSO: Heid Erdrich in Fireside Reading Series; Eduardo Porter at Club Book; and more.

The Best Years
“The Best Years” follows four friends in Rome through four decades of their lives, loves, marriages, careers, hopes and disappointments, successes and failures.
Courtesy of MSP Film

The official English-language title is “The Best Years.” The opening movie in the Italian Film Festival, which begins this Thursday (Feb. 25), spans 40 years in the lives of four people. This is such a long time, and so much happens, that the movie could have been a miniseries, an Italian “Dance to the Music of Time.” But it runs just over two hours. Don’t blink or you’ll miss something.

Written and directed by Gabriele Muccino, “The Best Years” follows four friends in Rome through four decades of their lives, loves, marriages, careers, hopes and disappointments, successes and failures. It begins in 1980, when they are all in the bloom and eagerness of adolescence, and ends in the present day, when they’re older and wiser, with teenagers of their own.

As “The Best Years” speeds along, it pauses briefly to nod at important events: a riot during the “Years of Lead” when one of them, Riccardo, is shot; the fall of the Berlin Wall; the political fall of Silvio Berlusconi; the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers. History is a pale backdrop to the real message of the film: the paramount importance of friendship.

“The Best Years” is a buddy film, except there are four buddies and one is female. Her first name is Gemma. We never learn her last name. She is more stereotyped, more troubled and less nuanced than the three male characters. It’s surprising when she is given what is arguably the most beautiful scene in the movie, the one that makes you catch your breath and wish there had been more like it.

This is Muccino’s twelfth feature. His films have won three Nastri d’Argento Prizes, Italy’s Oscars, and several Donatello Awards, the country’s equivalent to the Golden Globes. His 2001 film “L’ultimo bacio” (The Last Kiss) is one of Italy’s all-time great box office successes; 2002’s “Ricordati di me” (Remember Me, My Love) was an even bigger hit. In the U.S., Muccino has directed “The Pursuit of Happyness” and “Seven Pounds,” both starring Will Smith.

All four of the main actors in “The Best Years” – Pierfrancesco Favino (Giulio), Micaela Ramazzotti (Gemma), Kim Rossi Stuart (Paolo) and Claudio Santamaria (Riccardo) – have lengthy résumés and many films to their credit. (One source calls them “the best Italian actors of the moment.”) Favino appeared in the American films “A Night at the Museum,” “Angels & Demons” and “Rush.”

In “The Best Years,” Giulio, Paolo and Riccardo meet on the night Riccardo is shot; he survives and they give him the nickname “Surv.” Paolo meets Gemma when he brings a pet bird to school to explain how birds fly. From then on, they are all connected, despite having different backgrounds and beliefs. Giulio is poor, with an abusive father; Paolo is a dreamy-eyed idealist; Riccardo’s parents are hippies; Gemma is an orphan. At times, for various reasons, the four friends go their separate ways, but sooner or later they run into each other – on the streets of Rome, at a train station, in other random places – and reconnect. They are meant to be together.

It’s interesting to see a film set in Rome that treats it as just another city, a place where people live, instead of one of the world’s great tourist destinations. We see the occasional ruin in passing, and there’s a sweet scene at the Trevi Fountain. But no Colosseum, no St. Peter’s Square. Just everyday places where people go.

With a star director, a powerful ensemble cast, a great location and a compelling if overstuffed story, “The Best Years” is a strong start to the 12th Italian Film Festival of Minneapolis/St. Paul (IFF). It’s deliciously watchable and will leave you wanting more Italian films. A partnership between the Italian Cultural Center of Minneapolis/St. Paul and MSP Film Society, curated by Artistic Director Tommaso Cammarano, this year’s festival includes 11 feature films over eight days. “The Best Years” is available only on Thursday, Feb. 25. FMI and tickets.

The picks

V is for virtual, L is for live and in person.

It’s a tough call on which of the three author events – Club Book, the Minnesota Historical Society Press book launch or the Fireside reading – to attend in real time. Luckily, all will be archived so you can stream them later on demand.

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We’re getting used to having this option, as if everything happening everywhere ends up on a big DVR in the cloud. Will it carry forward into the Next Normal?

V Now through Sunday, Feb. 28: Nightly Met Opera Streams: Dmitri Hvorostovsky Week. The superstar Russian baritone died in 2017 at age 55. But he made it to the Twin Cities before then, most recently giving a splendid recital for the Schubert Club’s International Artist Series in May 2014. The operas streaming this week include performances from 1999 (Tchaikovsky’s “The Queen of Spades”) to 2015 (Verdi’s “Il Trovatore”). Each will become available at 6:30 p.m. CST and remain accessible for on-demand viewing until 5:30 p.m. the next day. FMI and links. Free. P.S. If you’re reading this Tuesday morning or early Tuesday afternoon, you can also catch his 2011 “Il Trovatore” and bookend your week.

Eduardo Porter
Eduardo Porter
V Wednesday, Feb. 24, 6:30 p.m.: Club Book, hosted by Scott County Library: Eduardo Porter: “American Poison: How Racial Hostility Destroyed Our Promise.” Compared to other industrialized nations, the United States is losing ground across nearly every indicator of social health. In his latest book, a New York Times veteran argues that racism is largely to blame – and points the way toward hope. Porter “cuts to the root of racism … and brings it all the way to today with unblinking honesty and facts” (NPR). FMI. On Facebook Live, no registration required. If you can’t make it, you can hear the podcast later.

V Wednesday, Feb. 24, 7 p.m.: Minnesota Historical Society Press: Patrick Strait, “Funny Thing About Minnesota …” book launch. The former City Pages and Growler comedy beat reporter shares an insider’s look at stand-up comedy in the land of 10,000 laughs. Spanning the late 1970s to the early 2000s, from Mickey Finn’s to the Comedy Gallery to the Acme, Jeff Gerbino to Louie Anderson and Scott Hansen, Susan Vass to Lizz Winstead and Colleen Kruse, this is, as far as we know, the first history of stand-up in our fair state. At the launch, Strait will host a live conversation with special guests Anderson, Hansen, Gerbino, Winstead and Joel Madison. Expect a lot of laughs. Free. Live on Facebook and Youtube, available later at both for streaming. Strait is also the founder of

V Wednesday, Feb. 24, 7 p.m.: Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library: Fireside Reading Series: Heid Erdrich, “Little Big Bully.” This will be the final event in the 27th annual Fireside series. Does that mean spring is on the way? Absolutely. Erdrich, an Ojibwe enrolled at Turtle Mountain, will read from her seventh collection of poetry. Free, with registration required. Other plans? All of the 2021 Fireside events can be found on this YouTube playlist. 

L Thursday, Feb. 25: Minnesota Museum of American Art: “Outer Experiences: Black Life in Rural and Suburban Minnesota.” While the M’s doors remain closed, its window galleries on Robert and 4th streets in St. Paul are open to anyone who passes by, and they’re making the most of them with a series of exhibitions. Curated by Jokeda “JoJo” Bell, executive director of the African American Interpretive Center of Minnesota (AAICM), this show explores the experience of being Black outside of the Twin Cities. Drawing from AAICM’s archives and oral history project, it features photographs by Chris McDuffie alongside excerpts from interviews with Black Minnesotans who had formative experiences in rural or suburban parts of the state, living on the margins of Black and white society. Tune in for the exhibition kick-off at 2 p.m. with Bell and special guest Nur-D on Zoom (registration required) or Facebook Live.