YOUTH || 2015, Italy / France / UK / Switzerland || Drama || Directed by – Paolo Sorrentino / Written by – Paolo Sorrentino / Produced by – Carlotta Calori, Francesca Cima, Fabio Conversi, Gennaro Formisano, Nicola Giuliano, Viola Prestieri, Paul Sarony, Anne Walser / Music by – David Lang / Cinematography – Luca Bigazzi / Editing by – Cristiano Travaglioli / Production design – Ludovica Ferrario / Starring – Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Jane Fonda || 124 mins.
Youth is director Paolo Sorrentino’s second English-language feature and follows his international 2013 arthouse hit The Great Beauty, which bagged the coveted Best Foreign Language statuette at the 2014 Academy Awards.
On the surface, the fact that Sorrentino’s characteristic trait resembles a continuation of the traditional stylings of beloved classic Italian cinema of such masters as Luchino Visconti and Federico Fellini makes it easy to see what makes him so internationally acclaimed. Fellini and Visconti in particular, at the peak of their respective careers, often dealt with stories revolving around bourgeois guilt. These themes were often brought to the screen in ways that were simultaneously as grandiose and glamorous as they were introspective and personal. The much publicized similarities between The Great Beauty and Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) are indeed inescapable – so much so that the former could be a sequel to the latter. Likewise, there are many similarities in Youth and Visconti’s Death in Venice (1971) such as its setting – a resort for vacationing wealthy class – and their respective central characters being detached, troubled and ageing music composers.
Sorrentino never conceals his openness to influences. In fact, one of his characters in Youth, Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), is an A-list actor who integrates perennial people-watching and his interests in arts and philosophy in his process of transformation for a new role. Tree is also an actor who longs to be accepted as a serious actor. Artistic concerns are also quite close to Sorrentino and dealt with in this film in various ways.
Dano’s is only one of the many colourful and wealthy inhabitants of the Swiss spa. There is a whole cast of characters revolving around Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine), the retired acclaimed composer of contemporary classical music. This cast includes his daughter and assistant Leda (Rachel Weisz) who suffers a breakdown after her unwarranted breakup from her husband, his close friend and veteran filmmaker Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) who is writing what he calls his “cinematic testament” with a younger group of writers and even an initially comedic and subsequently melancholic modern-day version of footballing star Maradona (Roy Serrano).
This short list only scrapes the surface of the many lives crossing in Sorrentino’s latest film, mostly unburdened by conventional narrative structures. In Youth, even non-speaking roles seem crucial to the overall vision, as shown by his work with long-time collaborator and cinematographer Luca Bigazzi. Here, as in most of their previous films together, we find meticulous camera movements, a penchant for valuing architecture and more green pastures and blue skies than arguably seen in most their previous efforts put together. In a recent interview to GoldDerby, Bigazzi admitted that the two were reluctant to use so much of the surrounding natural environment, before realizing “it is so beautiful that we cannot go against that, so we accept it.” This choice gives the film a meditative aura, allowing wider interaction with viewers, a connection that is often enhanced by creative sound editing – for example, in a specific breath-taking sequence, Fred Ballinger orchestrates a herd of cows – as well as the primitive call of choir music and bells in its written score. Occasionally, the film also allows precious glimpses in the minds, imagination and dreams of the characters, bringing us closer to them in a more metaphysical and impressionistic way.
Montages are an equally defining trait in the construction of the film. Moments in which Bigazzi observes naked people resting in swimming pools and saunas highlight imperfections. The effect is contrasting; these imperfections are far more beautiful and interesting that the elegant dresses they display in the course of the Spa’s extravagant soirees. Likewise, the screenplay constantly points out this contrast by highlighting the concept that people hide their true selves behind constructed identities and etiquette.
The irony of it all is that the leading character, Fred Ballinger, is also the most enigmatic. Caine’s masterfully restrained performance wonderfully captures the image of a man who rarely lets his guard down to reveal his true emotions. Despite this, we know him as troubled and regretful. He is at his most exposed in his conversations with veteran filmmaker Mick Boyle. Keitel, as Boyle, complements Caine with a slightly more extroverted type of performance. There is also something disarmingly refreshing about their talks, which often start with the topic of toilet habits before developing into philosophical musings and recollections about the past. As the film progresses, it becomes clearer that Bolye is also wearing a proverbial mask. Later on, Ballinger will admit to their friendship being a “good friendship” because they only “talk about the good things”, therefore implying that friendship is handpicked escapism, almost a contractual agreement in which respective projected identities are not only accepted but preferred.
The father daughter relationship between Fred and Leda is examined in a similarly compelling way. Weisz’s Leda comes across as initially playing the role of the perennial “daddy’s girl”. When her husband leaves her without warning, she is left traumatized. In this state of shock, this image is almost irrevocably altered. In a scene, Fred converses candidly with Boyle about the “tremendous effort” fathers put into doing small things they hope will be remembered fondly by their children, but ultimately never are. Shortly after, Weisz’s intense monologue sees Leda unleashing her anger on Fred, accusing him of being a terrible father and husband. The monologue revolves around a small phrase, “Quiet Melanie”, mentioned numerous times during the outburst. Here, a small thing is indeed remembered, though tied to a negative memory.
This particular scene shows Sorrentino’s sophistication and attention to detail in scriptwriting, which generally leads his films to offering new discoveries upon repeated viewings. Nevertheless, this approach steers mostly clear of pontification or emotive manipulation. There is a healthy balance of humour and drama that makes the story both engaging and entertaining. In addition, Youth is able to appeal to viewers and their sensibilities individually precisely because it is a work bearing the personal imprint of its maker; something that paradoxically draws him even closer to the legacies of the aforementioned Fellini and Visconti. – 5/5