If you’re reading this review on Wednesday or Thursday, drop this paper, clear your schedule–blow off work if you have to–and head to Cary’s Galaxy Cinema, because a one of a kind, six-hour cinematic spectacle awaits you there. The Best of Youth, an epic drama of one bourgeois family in the last 40 years of Italian history, is playing through Thursday only. Broken into two three-hour installments, the film has been creeping around the country with little fanfare since opening in New York five months ago. And, if you can’t make it to the theater, start bugging your local video store for the DVD release, whenever it should materialize. Briefly stated, the film is something like an Italian Doctor Zhivago, a lushly romantic film that sprawls across decades of political upheaval, tracing the rising and falling fortunes of members of a sensitive, liberal and educated clan, and their friends and lovers. It’s not perfect by any stretch, but the cumulative effect is overpowering. I spent much of the fifth hour bathed in tears.

Like Omar Sharif’s title character in David Lean’s adaptation of the Pasternak novel, the central figure in The Best of Youth is a humane doctor who bobs along the currents of occasionally violent political and cultural vicissitudes. The historical backdrop of this film needs little explanation for Italian audiences who will remember, for example, the Florence flood of 1966 and the left-wing terrorism of the Red Brigade in the 1970s. However, American audiences need not be familiar with the particulars of the Italian experience; an equivalent American story would begin with college students in thrall to Kennedy’s New Frontier, with one major character going off to Vietnam while another becomes an anti-war activist. Subsequent events would include the assassinations of King and Bobby Kennedy, Kent State, the resignation of Nixon, the bombings by the Weather Underground and the slow process of reconciliation and encroaching middle age in the 1980s and ’90s.

The Best of Youth begins in the mid-1960s, when two brothers are taking their university finals and plotting a graduation trip with friends. Matteo is the literature student, a brooding and handsome rebel who confounds even those who know him best, including his brother Nicola, the good, dutiful son who is preparing for a career in medicine. While Matteo flunks his exam by refusing to placate his unimaginative professor with a conventional reading of a religious poet, Nicola earns the praise of a cranky old medical professor who urges him to leave this “useless” country and destroy the “dinosaurs,” such as himself.

While Nicola ponders his future and how to direct his medical career in a socially progressive fashion, Matteo takes to volunteering at a local mental hospital, where he is drawn to an attractive young woman named Giorgia who is being subjected to a vicious regimen of electroshock therapy. On the eve of the graduation trip, Matteo liberates the woman from the hospital, thus throwing a wrench into the vacation plans. Nicola and Matteo decide to separate from their friends and instead return Giorgia to her family. Disaster strikes, and the brothers end up separating: Nicola grows a beard and indulges in some hippie wanderings in Norway while Matteo cuts his hair and joins the army.

Their divergent paths thus chosen, the two brothers pursue careers on opposite sides of Italian political life, with Nicola falling in with leftist radicals and a relationship with a firebrand named Giulia while Matteo becomes increasingly monastic under barracks discipline. As Nicola, Luigi Lo Cascio resembles Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone, but with the simpatico contours of Matthew Broderick. Alessio Boni’s Matteo is somewhat problematic. He’s not very convincing as a Byronic young literature student, being much too old and also laboring under excessive makeup, but once Matteo becomes a soldier, Boni’s just perfect as the tragically chaste mystery man–even though his Van Damme-like countenance clashes rather loudly with his sensitive brother.

While Nicola provides the film’s principal point of view as the decent humanitarian, it is the brilliant and haunted Matteo who looms over the film. As the family’s enigmatic genius, Matteo confounds his brother, his mother and his would-be lovers. He’s a kind of poetic creation–compared by Nicola to Achilles late in the film–who sees a fallen world all around him. Enormously attractive to the ladies, Matteo nonetheless idealizes unattainable women such as the damaged Giorgia while fleeing from the touch of a far more viable lover, a photographer he meets in Sicily named Mirella. (For his vulgar gratifications, he watches soft-core porn and patronizes a transvestite prostitute.)

For all of its rapture, The Best of Youth does have some shortcomings. In particular, the film is curiously old-fashioned in its male point of view. Matteo and Nicola have two sisters, but one becomes a sweet homemaker while the other pursues a dangerous career as a reformist lawyer, a path that ultimately leads to prosecuting the Mafia in Palermo. Sadly, The Best of Youth has relatively little time for them, with the lawyer functioning mostly as the scolding older sister. We learn little about her crusading legal career and next to nothing about her personal life beyond her failed marriage to an off-screen man. It’s a tribute, nonetheless, to the capacious interest of this six-hour movie that it contains secondary characters about whom we yearn to learn more.

However, the most important female character is Giulia (Sonia Bergamasco), Nicola’s lover with whom he fathers a daughter. Giulia is an unrepentant radical, and she eventually abandons the family for the underground siren song of the Red Brigade. From this point on, Bergamasco’s performance becomes ever more spectral as she slinks through scenes in a succession of bad wigs. Significantly, this character is a blanched, bony blonde–thus much more of a Teutonic She-Wolf of the SS than a lusty, heavy-hipped Italian brunette who progresses naturally from virgin to limber sex partner to sentimental, pasta-making, rosary-clutching mamma mia.

All told, The Best of Youth courses through 40 years of Italian history, with pauses over such momentous occasions as the 1982 World Cup soccer championship, an event noted in a brilliantly contrapuntal scene. While the film’s use of a reformist physician buffeted by political tempest is reminiscent of Doctor Zhivago, The Best of Youth is also intimately engaged with the cinema of Italy. In particular, Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900 is something of a precursor, both in its daring sprawl (five hours) and in its commitment to telling a half-century’s worth of national history through the divergent paths of two quasi-brothers (played by non-Italians Robert De Niro and Gerard Depardieu).

The Best of Youth was conceived as a television mini-series, so in cinematic terms it doesn’t measure up to such outsized predecessors as 1900, Visconti’s The Leopard and Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, nor does it contain performances as iconic as those of Lancaster, Cardinale, Delon, Mastroianni and Ekberg. Director Marco Tullio Giordana doesn’t have the cinematic flash of Bertolucci or Fellini, which is OK, but he also doesn’t seem to have Bertolucci’s political commitment, either. While Bertolucci’s great films were informed by his own communist sympathies, The Best of Youth is, despite all the politics, rather apolitical. Fundamentally, The Best of Youth is a family drama set during a period of crisis in the Italian bourgeoisie. In the narrative of The Best of Youth, this period of tumult eventually ends in reconciliation–a happy ending that is signified in the film by Nicola’s daughter becoming interested in restoring Renaissance frescoes.

The film’s passive endorsement of bourgeois living is one of two ways in which The Best of Youth is descended from another Bertolucci film, the magnificent Before the Revolution, which he made in 1964. It’s the tale of an affluent young Marxist and his conflicting impulses toward radicalism and the acceptance of his birthright of cultivated living among the cushions of Verdi, Puccini, Dante and Petrarch. The film is an exuberant valentine to youthful passion and to filmmaking, and it’s not coincidentally set in the same zeitgeist as the early scenes of The Best of Youth. Before the Revolution is one of my all-time favorite films, one that I first saw 15 years ago in college, and I have watched it every couple of years since and will continue to do so hereafter. The female lead of that film was a fragile beauty named Adriana Asti, whom I never saw in another film. Although Asti continued to work after Before the Revolution, she would not appear in many films of international renown until, finally, The Best of Youth. Over the course of six hours, Asti–now an elderly woman–quietly takes the emotional center as the increasingly saddened mother of Nicola, Matteo and their sisters. But Asti’s character ends the film in a splendidly Elysian fashion, one that’s as perfect and well-deserved as it is beautiful and moving. She’s seen the best of youth, before the revolution and after, and now she’s old enough to know that true peace lies in happy children and grandchildren, and a little Mediterranean sunshine.

Part 2 of The Best of Youth plays at Galaxy Cinema at 7:30 p.m.,Wednesday and Thursday only.