The story opens in 1964, with both boys in college under the watch of their doting father. What captures our attention is the similarity and the differences between the two in nuanced ways. Matteo, for example, is discovered alone, locked in a room, studying furiously, and he brusquely brushes off his father's request to help with a chore, claiming the importance of a looming exam. But we understand instantly that there's some pathology in Matteo, not only in his self-enforced solitude but also in his extreme discomfort with his father's open fondness. Emotions, we will learn, are not Matteo's strong points.
But when the proud papa enters the next room, he finds the outgoing Nicola studying with two buddies, Carlo and Vitale, and Nicola jumps to the task of helping his dad, quickly enlisting his friends. Thus are patterns graven in stone: the loner Matteo, who rejects every human approach, and the sociable Nicola, warm and winning but perhaps too eager to please. Yet at the same time, we understand that the two, so different, love each other passionately. The strength of true and lifelong friendship is yet theme develops in the movie. Nicola is supported by two of his childhood friends in all ups and downs of his life
In the course of the story each boy will chart his own way, yet they will swoop together periodically for encounters with sibling and family. Alongside we the developments with their parents, their friends, their lovers, their children, all of whom grow and change, leave and return, succeed and fail, live and in some cases die over the years.
The initial narrative follows as the reluctant and hostile Matteo destroys himself at college by disputing a pompous professor, then kidnapping a young woman, Giorgia, and engaging his brother in a mad scheme to return her to her father. Giorgia brings in one of the movie's primary concerns, which is mental illness. She is an institutionalized schizophrenic for whom Matteo has been caring as a part-time job. Upset to discover burn marks from the electroshock therapy the institution had been using, he seeks to liberate her. Nicola also becomes deeply engaged in her plight. The brothers' exposure to the young woman will change and charge each young man for life. The experience motivates Nicola, naturally empathetic, to become a psychiatrist, dedicated to bettering the lot of the mentally ill.
Matteo, shattered by the pain and guilt he feels at her loss, will seal himself off even more: Matteo leaves the army to join the police force. He accepts an assignment in Sicily, a place corrupted by the Mafia.
Back to the story of Nicola, undergoing different adventurous events of life he meets his future bride Giulia during a voluntary service in the flooding of Florence and starts wooing her. Nicola would marry (not formally) her and they have girl child Sara. Gulia later becomes a Red Brigade terrorist, and Matteo is assigned to a squad tasked with hunting Red Brigade terrorists. She would be also tasked with murdering the best friend of her husband.
Showing a different side of the personality their father die out of sickness.
In Sicily matteo meets a photographer in a caffè named Mirella. She wants to be a librarian, and he advises her to work at a beautiful library in Rome. Because of his temper, Matteo is forced to leave Sicily. He decides to reside in Rome but refuses to visit his mother. Years later Matteo walks into that same library and sees Mirella for the second time. They fall in love. Mirella meets with Matteo with news for him, but he behaves so harshly to her that she does not tell him that she is pregnant with his child. On New Year's Eve, Matteo decides to finally visit his mother. Everyone is there to celebrate. Instead of waiting for the traditional toasts, however, Matteo decides to leave early and, at midnight, jumps off the balcony of his apartment and kills himself. The odd personality of Matteo tried to hide his emotional fragility behind a facade of pure macho force. He knows that if he lets himself feel anything, it will be too much.
Nicola, feeling that he could have saved Matteo and not wanting to make the same mistake again, arranges for the capture of Giulia to prevent her from killing someone else or from getting killed. She is sentenced to 17 years in jail. During her jail term, Nicola visits Giulia and proposes to her but is rejected.
Nicola finds a photograph of Matteo taken by Mirella. He is encouraged by Giorgia to meet with Mirella which, after some hesitation, he agrees to do. When he meets Mirella, Nicola learns about her son (Andrea) and that Matteo was the father. Nicola breaks this exciting news to his mother and they visit the boy in Sicily. Inspired by new meaning in her life, Nicola's mother decides to stay with Mirella and her grandson. She will die there, some years later. In all the bitterness of life their mother stands as a strong character, but very affectionate and ideal typical of a mother.
Meanwhile, Sara, now in her early twenties, is still struggling with the poor choices her mother has made. She decides to move to Rome to study art and becomes engaged to Mimmo. During this time, Nicola finds out his mother has died and, as a result, travels to Sicily to visit Mirella and pay his respects.
Having finally moved past the death of Matteo, Nicola and Mirella fall in love. Sara, now happy and strong, is encouraged by Nicola to confront her mother and try to patch things up. Giulia, now out of jail and in desperate need of love, embraces Sara, but is not ready to open up completely. The movie ends with Matteo's son, Andrea, visiting Norway (N. Cape), which is where his father and Nicola ventured to go at the beginning of the movie, but never completed their journey.
Although the story reveals the political turmoil of Italy, it keeps a great credit for its neutrality: this is neither a leftist nor a rightest screed; it doesn't see causes or economic oppression or heroic police action but people caught up in compelling if confusing circumstances. Nobody is guilty because nobody is innocent; people are just people.
Giordana (the script writer) keeps the story so fiercely realistic that one can easily make peace with the issue of probability and simply enjoy -- or mourn -- a family that seems as real as your own relatives.
(Edited from reviews articles from Stephen Hunter, Washington Post Staff Writer, and Wikipedia film review)