Wow! (Not enough of those in 2015)
I’ve been a fan of Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino for a long time, loving every film he has made. His last film, The Great Beauty, was my fourth-favourite film of 2014. Youth, while an utterly unique film, has a lot in common with The Great Beauty, including central characters in their 70’s/80’s who reflect on moments of beauty in their past and in the world around them. I continue to find it odd that such a relatively young filmmaker (Sorrentino is 45) writes and directs films about the experience of aging, but it works for me.
Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel are wonderful as Fred and Mick, best friends who are staying (living?) in an exclusive hotel/spa in the Swiss Alps. Fred is a retired composer and orchestra conductor whose work is so famous that Queen Elizabeth wants him to come out of retirement to conduct a performance of his Simple Song # 3 one last time. Mick is a film director whose best films are behind him. He and a group of young screenwriters are working on the closing scene of his latest film, in which Mick is expecting his favourite actress, Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda) to play a key role.
Fred and Mick go for long walks in the gorgeous Swiss countryside, talking about life, about the past and about aging. But when Mick is working, Fred usually sits alone, reading, and observing the people around him, often sharing his reflections with Jimmy (Paul Dano), a young actor who is trying to develop his latest role. Fred’s daughter, Lena (Rachel Weisz), seems to be staying with him. She works as his assistant and is having marital problems (she’s married to Mick’s son).
Fred and Mick are clearly flawed characters, not heroes, but behind those flaws, as in The Great Beauty, lies a depth and heart that we catch occasional glimpses of. Fred is described as apathetic. He’s tired and somewhat cynical, as is Mick. Like the protagonist in The Great Beauty, Fred and Mick wonder if life is pointless (a common theme in Sorrentino’s films) apart from their memories of the beautiful moments in their past. They like to share their wisdom and opinions with the younger generations but Youth reveals that sometimes the greatest wisdom comes from children.
Youth is full of magical moments, profound observations and quirky scenes (did I mention there’s a Buddhist monk and a mountain climber staying at the hotel?). Some viewers, including critics, describe Youth as pretentious, cynical, condescending and voyeuristic. I can understand why they think that, and I don’t recommend Sorrentino’s films to everyone, but I happen to love Sorrentino’s style and the way so many of his films, like Youth, contain gorgeous well-acted reflections on life and aging that I find exhilarating and thought-provoking.
The question remains as to whether Sorrentino actually believes life is pointless. The mountain climber in Youth says he found a night table on the top of Everest. But when he opened the drawer, it was empty. Is that Sorrentino’s way of saying there is no god and ultimately no meaning to existence? And what about his obsession with beauty and how it relates to the scenes of the ‘ugly’ in Youth?
I don’t know the answers, but I do know that Youth has amazing cinematography (same cinematographer as The Great Beauty - Luca Bigazzi), an incredible score (by David Lang), an intelligent and funny screenplay, and excellent acting by all off the five actors named above. And I enjoyed every minute of it. A solid ****. My mug is up.