Film review: Youth

by **


The title Youth may seem totally ironic for a film in which the central characters, both in their late-70s (or early-80s), are living out their latter years. Then, perhaps, it is not all that out of place.

Through his latest production, director Paolo Sorrentino illustrates the way age could erode not only one’s physical well-being but their emotional health. Seeing the world predominantly through the eyes of Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine, sensational), the movie follows the distinguished composer and conductor, as he rediscovers his faculty to feel, and becomes acquainted again with his younger self.

We meet him in a luxury resort at the foot of the Swiss Alps where he is vacationing with his daughter, Leda (Rachel Weisz), and life-long movie-director friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel). While Mick is still working on a new script, Fred has declared himself determinedly retired.

Citing personal reasons, he declines even a commission by Buckingham Palace to conduct one of his many compositions for a Royal celebration. So, when he is not submitting with resignation to the body-rejuvenation regime of massages and spas and health checks organised by Leda, the quietly sceptical musician is reminiscing the past to Mick, with whom he also muses about other well-heeled guests at the house. Like the couple on stubbornly unspeaking terms who end up fornicating wildly in the forest. Or the actor (beautifully underplayed by Paul Dano) contemplating roles of horror and of desire.

A poem, held together by the loosest of plots, within which surreal images pierce here and there like exploding themes into the narrative, Youth combines a vivacious cinematography with an often-profound screenplay to reveal the sometimes-visceral, sometimes-banal quality of human condition.

There is one sexy, if elusive, scene where Fred finds the voluptuous Miss Universe (holidaying there too) rubbing up against him as they pass each other on a watery path in front of St Mark’s Square, before coming back to be surrounded again by the shadows of those who survived lost fame, or have lost themselves in that fame.

Imbuing Fred with a few regrets as husband and father, Sorrentino sends him on a trajectory from mechanical numb cynicism towards belief, something Mick demonstrates literally with his life.

“You say emotions are over-rated; that’s bullshit,” the film-maker says, after the diva (Jane Fonda) he had groomed rejects him and mocks at his fading talent. “They’re all we’ve got.”

But the Academy-award winning director of The Great Beauty is not interested only in the soft and the fuzzy. In an exquisite manifestation of renewal through the next generation, Fred gently instructs a young boy he stumbles upon playing Fred’s own work on the violin.

Where the movie disappoints me, though, is its excruciating drawn-out pace, segueing from one thing to another, as though by an indulgent poet in a drunken stupor, even when Caine, in marvellously indicating Fred’s growing welter of feelings, is the effective hero. One wonders whether this is how the world becomes to everybody with the cruel passage of time.

Still, Youth is nothing less than memorable, and deserves — maybe only just — the patience it demands if only for the thoughtful lines and disarmingly spectacular interjections and scrumptious nude(s).