One of my favourite actors – Sir Michael Caine turned 85 this week, and this is my belated opportunity to celebrate by reviewing one of Caine’s more recent films directed by the eminent Italian director Paolo Sorrentino (“The Great Beauty” (2013)). “Youth” is about Fred Ballinger (Caine), a retired music composer who reminisces on his life while luxuriating at a health resort in the Swiss Alps. His old friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), an American film director, keeps him company, while his daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz), who suffers from a relationship break-up, prompts Fred to re-examine his past familial relationships. A very much Sorrentino film, “Youth” may not reach the heights of Sorrentino’s “The Great Beauty“, but it is still an interesting examination of a life past with some great acting as well as breathtakingly beautiful vistas on display.
Like in Sorrentino’s previous film “The Great Beauty”, in “Youth”, an aging man, who was once a near-genius in his field, finds himself contemplating his past life in an almost surreal setting. At a health resort where Fred (Caine) is staying, a range of health activities are provided during the day, including massages and other spa treatments, while eclectic entertainment, from pop singing to fire-eating, takes place during the evening. The resort is surrounded by a beautiful Alpine landscape, and, like in previous Sorrentino films, in here old age is contrasted with youth and beauty. This is the kind of a place where Buddhist monks practice their art outdoors almost next door to young escorts meeting their elderly clientele in the privacy of opulent rooms. Aging celebrities can relax here, and Fred and Mick (Keitel), his elderly pal, find plenty of opportunities to do so while also contemplating their past life choices. It so happens that Mick’s son breaks up with Fred’s daughter Lena (Weisz), and both Fred and Mick are in awe at the transience and the shaky foundations of modern relationships. Fred also befriends a young actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), and it is the actor’s far-reaching wisdom about the misunderstood and unappreciated talent which hits so hard home with Fred.
As in “The Great Beauty”, Sorrentino effortlessly imbues many scenes in “Youth” with inner beauty. Moment after moment, scene after scene, there are visually stunning displays characterised by well-placed shots and controlled direction. Sorrentino does not even have to rely so much on nudity and stunning views, though there are plenty of both in the film. Rather, the director simply manages to make a true spectacle of many scenes, be it scenes of people merely relaxing in a pool or complex imaginative scenes of Fred conducting an “orchestra” consisting of cows or Mick being confronted by his long-gone muses-actresses. The theme of memory and regrets, coming to terms with one’s life, is a very much Sorrentino arena. Mick says at one point – “When you’re young. Everything seems really close – that’s the future. What you see when you’re old – everything seems really far away – that’s the past.” Also Fred refers to the fact that parents often make real sacrifices or other efforts for their children, and when children grow up, they often do not even remember their parents making these things.
Philosophy just permeates this film by Sorrentino. There is not much by way of a clear beginning, a middle and an ending. Rather, the film could be seen as composed of a series of episodes which try to distil the inner state of the main characters. Fred, as played by Caine, is a typical British eccentric who has just turned down the invitation from the Queen Elizabeth II to perform his infamous Simple Songs again. Fred is reserved and sarcastic, and is contrasted nicely with Mick, who is loud and opinionated, and who finds himself in a middle of his last film’ writing process. Thus, another pleasure of this film is to be found in these contrasts, little funny scenes and in the dialogues full of reflections on the meaning of life. In that way, where the film may lack in melodrama and tension, it gains in personal reflection and interesting philosophical conundrums. The inability to re-capture past moments of life, the incapability to express one’s passion/love fully and the importance of personal relationships in one’s life are all at the core of “Youth”. Mick says at one point to Fred – “You say that emotions are overrated. But that’s bullshit. Emotions are all we’ve got”, and Fred once refers to music being that art that can only be understood as something that simply “is”.
Despite the strong beginning of this movie, it loses its momentum by too much sidetracking. Some of the film’s episodes are funny, full of meaning, and complement the overall plot, while others are disjoined and overly indulgent. One may say that it is precisely in this combination lies Paolo Sorrentino’s genius, but, in this movie, it does not work that well. One of the problems of the film is that it is too manipulative regarding the characters it creates, and it often subordinates the events to showcase the grandeur and volubility of its main characters. This is seen by allusions to Stravinsky when talking about Fred’s connections or as seen by Mick’s over-the-top actions after meeting with Brenda (played excellently by Jane Fonda). In this way, “Youth” may be seen as too self-absorbed in its own righteousness.
Sorrentino’s “Youth” is aesthetically-beautiful satirical picture with an embedded philosophical message and Michael Caine shining as the main character. However, it is also a film with an ambiguous goal that does contain a manipulative and dragging streak à la Sorrentino. 7/10