Dec 6, 2015
Another visual delight from Paolo Sorrentino (La Grande Belleza), Youth is really about death and decay and the span of lifetimes. Anchored by a magnificent performance by Michael Caine, it takes place in a luxurious but decrepit spa in the Swiss Alps, where rich and famous people go to take the waters and rejuvenate. As in La Grande Belleza, Sorrentino imagines the enclave where the wealthy congregate as the slightly Dantesque anteroom of Hell. It is supposed to be the lap of luxury, but it is also decadent and tacky, in a vulgar bubble of its own, bereft of the outside world.
The movie, a richly symbolic and sometimes shambolic disquisition on aging, is a visual feast.
This is not only because of Luca Bigazzi's extraordinary cinematography but because Sorrentino, like a proud and prolific chef, serves frame after frame of crisp, powerful images. He is very good at visual storytelling and he delivers many wonderful visual puns: an embarrassment of riches. The editing is a wonder. While the dialogue is clunky and uneven at times, and the philosophical ramblings not always clear, the images are exuberantly expressive. They communicate better than all the words in the story.
Sorrentino has the gall, and the talent, to follow in the footsteps of Fellini, using the same kind of grandly symbolic imagery that skirts the province of dreams and the subconscious. Youth is reminiscent of 81/2, which is also about the mind and soul of a creative man. Sorrentino seems to be deliberately courting the comparisons to Fellini, while at the same time dutifully following his tradition. He gets away with it because, like his master before him, he has a wry sense of humor, and a very playful, satirical sensibility. He may be philosophical, but he is not pretentious. Who else but Sorrentino could summon an aged, wheezing, obese version of Maradona as the perfect embodiment of wasted, incomprehensible genius?
Michael Caine plays Fred Ballinger, a famous composer who is retired and "apathetic". An emissary from the Queen of England requests that he come out of his shell to conduct his famous "Simple Songs" for Prince Phillip's birthday. He refuses. He is done with music and, apparently, with life. His best friend and in-law, film director Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) is at the spa too, writing his last screenplay, as is Ballinger's daughter and assistant Lena (Rachel Weisz) and a pensive Hollywood actor (an excellent Paul Dano). Lesser actors would have trouble sounding halfway credible in such a grandiose movie of ideas, but this bunch holds its own. When sharing the screen with Michael Caine, they rise to the occasion. Otherwise, they would all be toast.
Ballinger is supposed to be unsentimental, a man who forsook his family for his music and is now nursing his regrets with dignified aloofness, if not a deep funk. It is a casting coup, since Caine is anything but cold, and he imbues this man with a serene world-weariness that is deeply alive and very touching.
Keitel and Caine compare prostate problems as they ogle a Miss Universe who is not as dumb as everyone thinks, and try to come to terms with aging. They obsess about a woman they once loved, and while Ballinger is trying to renounce this world, Boyle is consumed with leaving a masterpiece for posterity. Youth is about the finality of life, the ravages of time and the more pernicious ones of ego. The two friends are at the end of life, but Fred's daughter, Lena, provides a glimpse into what happens in the middle. Youth is a movie about the many faces of experience. It is populated with wise children, cheeky old people and every age in between.
Ballinger's music is composed by David Lang, the contemporary American composer from Bang on a Can. Sorrentino is as good with images as he is with the use of sound and music, and Lang's score ties majestically (if in places just a little bit schmaltzily) with the visuals. Youth is made with extraordinary craftsmanship. But it is a throwback to the filmmaking style of cinematic symbolists of yore, like Fellini and Ken Russell. I detect a hint of quaint machismo, too. Even though it looks supremely modern, it seems a bit old-fashioned.
Youth is too long and meanders in places, but if you allow yourself to be swallowed by the ravishing beauty of its every frame, you are in for an experience. They just don't make this kind of movies anymore.