Paolo Sorrentino’s previous film, The Great Beauty, won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Does Youth belong in the same stratosphere?
By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)
There is little to no irony in the fact that a story about two octogenarians is entitled Youth. Film auteur Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty, This Must Be the Place, Il Divo) suggests that if we free ourselves of the past — shrugging off prior regrets, guilt and reinvented and/or hazy memory — we may feel light enough to float into the future. Per Sorrentino: “In fact, without the future, how can one be young?”
The movie introduces two eightysomethings who have been fast friends for sixty years: dapper, retired, internationally renowned conductor/composer Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) and energetic, A-list filmmaker Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel). They’ve been vacationing at the same secluded Swiss Alps hideaway for decades. Fred is on a quiet holiday; when the Queen’s emissary shows up to request that Fred conduct his famous composition at a concert in honor of Prince Philip’s birthday, he explains that he is indeed retired. And firmly refuses.
Meanwhile, the industrious Mick is fine-tuning the screenplay for his final film that he’s calling “Life’s Last Day.” Of course he’s chosen that name; he feels the literal deadline approaching. He expresses as much when he’s delivering a life lesson to his entourage of young wannabe screenwriters. Standing on a hilltop, he tells them to look through a nearby telescope. They note that the distant mountains appear close enough to touch. He then reverses the telescope, and the group sees that the view is far away, constricted, hard to discern. “Being young makes everything close,” he says. “Being old makes everything far away.”
But the characters aren’t exactly as they seem: While Mick initially appears imbued with stamina, we see him weaken, dragged down by fruitless attempts to unearth his memories, to hold on to what was. He’s not so much making a new film as repeating past glories … perhaps with the intent of creating a cinematic tombstone that will testify to his singular genius. In one particularly evocative scene, ghosts of his prior films’ leading ladies materialize, greeting him, perhaps inviting him to join them off-screen, where all movie memories live on. It just may be that Mick won’t be moving forward after all.
As opposed to Michael Caine’s Fred, who steadfastly refuses to look ahead nor behind. The present will have to be good enough for him. He turns down publishers’ requests to write his memoirs, he eschews thinking about his wife and, as mentioned in the opening, not even the Queen can persuade him to come out of retirement.
Fred may avow that he has no further interest in music, yet his actions sing a different tune. He coaches a little boy playing a violin. He fiddles with a cellophane candy wrapper as if it were an instrument. He ventures out into the forest and, using a tree stump as a podium, he conducts. Employing the cows, the birds and the wind to act as his personal orchestra, he creates a fantastical sylvan symphony. Not of out ego but, rather, as his own personal Ode to Joy.
The film’s concept of faulty memory chipping away at the quality of life isn’t merely the purview of the elderly. In a marvelously shot sequence, daughter Lena delivers a vitriolic monologue accusing her father of coldly distancing himself from the family, prioritizing his music above all. As she vents, the camera shoots down at her from a skewed angle, fixing solely on her face. When the camera finally pulls away, we see that Lena and father Fred are lying on adjacent tables having full-body mud treatments. As shot, this physical, non-sexual intimacy belies her memories. If Daddy is that close to his daughter, then how is he not close to his daughter? Ultimately, Youth is kind to Lena, allowing her to embrace a different kind of flight into her future.
Caine delivers another strong, thoughtful performance, effortlessly carrying the film. And Keitel is a delight, imbuing Mick with such ease, that we’re reminded of Keitel’s extraordinary talent to breathe authentic life into any of his characters over the decades. Paul Dano surprises, refreshing in a role that isn’t mired in twitchy paranoia or paralyzed insecurity. However, Fonda as the diva delivers an overblown, false performance that simply doesn’t fit within the confines of this film.
Working with his longtime cinematographer Luca Bigazzi (The Great Beauty, This Must Be the Place, Il Divo), Sorrentino once again delivers a visual crazy quilt that is like none other. Such as the bizarre hotel performers, the oldsters standing like statues in the pool and, in a dream sequence, Fred walking past a sumptuous Venetian palace that’s about to be flooded by rising, shimmering waters. The majority of the film was shot on location in the Swiss Alps, at Berghotel Schatzalp (a 1900s Art Nouveau luxury sanatorium turned hotel). Visually arresting, the hotel signifies a kind of waiting room, a limbo between this world and that.
The film alleviates its ongoing meditation on aging, memory and determination with frequent sparks of humor — as if to acknowledge that even at the end of the ever-diminishing day, “youth” might still be considered a fountain within reach. Even at the age of 80.
Rating on a scale of 5 Rites of Spring: 4
Release date: December 4, 2015
Written and Directed by: Paolo Sorrentino
Cast: Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Jane Fonda
Running Time: 123 minutes
Here’s the trailer: