Published on October 30th, 2015 | by Nathan Raine0
Youth is the new film from Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino; in keeping with his themes from The Great Beauty, he explores the aging, tortured artist.
An artist reflecting on the agonizing challenges of making art, assessing one’s legacy, and the heavy burden of time, isn’t exactly uncharted territory. From Fellini to Truffaut, many heralded filmmakers seem somewhat prone to a moment of navel gazing [I suspect in constructing a character obsessed with his own legacy, an artist seeks to discover, or create, a little of his own]. For acclaimed Italian writer/director, Youth marks his second consecutive portrait of an aging, regret-ridden artist. His previous film, the masterful La grande bellezza, was a gorgeous reflection on an artist’s lost time and love. Youth is essentially a continuation on those exact themes, and as such, one wonders, going in, if Sorrentino has any fresh insights on the subject he’s clearly obsessed with.
Youth takes place at an opulent resort in the very photogenic Swiss Alps. Retired composer Fred Ballinger [Michael Caine] and his friend, elderly film-director Mick [Harvey Keitel] spend much of their days soaking in pools, lounging in gardens, complaining about their prostates, and reminiscing on the few youthful years they can remember. Fred is bored in his idleness, yet reluctant to do anything remotely productive. He dodges autobiography offers and requests to conduct his famous songs for the Queen herself, in favour of, simply, rotting away in his resort.
Conversely, Mick is altogether deluded in his desire to create a great film. He surrounds himself with a team of young and irrefutably talentless writers [and actors, for that matter], in order to help him hack out his next film script, which he is convinced will his career’s “testament.” A handful of cursory characters also pop up, including Fred’s daughter and personal assistant, Lena [Rachel Weisz], and a moody actor, played by Paul Dano, who is trying to do his best Shia LaBeouf impression.
Caine is good in the central role, but is essentially a surrogate Jep Gambardella [the principle character in La grande bellezza], albeit, a decidedly less compelling one. Caine’s air of stricken apathy does remind of Jep, as do both characters’ circumstance of regretful and tortured artist. So similar, in fact, that it’s hard to resist not constantly comparing the two. And, in this comparison, Caine’s performance feels a little gaunt. Jep [played by the terrific Italian actor Toni Servillo] has a palpable sense of regret, and longs to release his long-muzzled artistic exuberance. Caine, while certainly still tortured, hits far fewer notes than Servillo. The exuberance Servillo radiates seems to be replaced in Caine by the desire to take a nap.
Youth rarely leaves the opulent grounds of the Swiss resort, which seems to double as a personal crisis centre. Sorrentino is able to seamlessly dance from one-mini crisis to another, while weaving in countless visual flourishes, comedic moments, and brief reflections in between. As such, much like Rome in bellezza, the Swiss resort functions as a hyper-stylized grounds where Sorrentino can freely wrestle with his entanglement of themes and musings. There is poetic beauty at work here, in Sorrentino’s major contemplation on the distance of youth. Fred and Mick make guarded reflections about their lost years, their children, their fractured understandings of love. There are a few brief but poignant scenes when the innocence and beauty of youth comes face to face with elderly. These encounters seem to both haunt and enrich the men, as they are unable to reconcile the past with the present.
It’s also here where Sorrentino is able to relish is his obsession in combining the elegant with the grotesque, the holy with the profane, and Youth, much like bellezza, has a number of these paradoxical flourishes. A Tibetan monk indulges in the luxuries of a lavish resort, a woman removes her niqab to expose her face to a stranger in an elevator, a raunchy model struts in front of a flooded St. Mark’s Basillica, an elegant opera singer gnaws on a greasy drumstick following a performance. Sorrentino seems insistent on stripping the majesty away from everything – just like his contemplations on time and youth – what was once vibrant seems inevitably destined to fade.
The film is not without its fair share of blemishes, though. The dialogue is at times clunky and forced, serving only one of Sorrentino’s many musings. It’s hard not to conclude that Sorrentino has a few too many dance partners in this one. While some of his reflections are certainly polished and insightful, others seem raw and underfed. Mick, the elderly film-director, has a particularly poor scene when he is suddenly haunted by flock of actresses angry at him for, apparently, being a poor “women’s director.” It’s an inexplicable scene that has no place in the film, besides maybe Sorrentino’s desire to create a Fellini-esque dream sequence, or to squeeze in one more reverie in hopes that audiences mistake it for something profound.
But, even when certain scenes don’t work, Sorrentino never feels pushy. He has a knack for really swinging for a profound or emotionally moving moment while leaving all sentimentality out of it. It doesn’t come off as feeling cold or removed, rather, simply as a director who is keenly aware of the cinematic sins of manipulation. This is perhaps Sorrentino’s greatest virtue as a director: his ruminations invite you to reflect on them, not force you to feel a certain way about them. And he does this uniformly, without pretext. His failed scenes are easy to forget, because there’s no forced feeling we’re working to reject. While, when one of his scenes truly hit on an emotional level [and there are certainly moments of brilliance in Youth] it can become something rhapsodic.
Youth is messy, raw, uneven, and passionate. Like Sorrentino proved in bellezza, he’s not afraid to really go for it in these grand cinematic moments. Do I give him points for trying? Absolutely. He’s doing something heartfelt, expressing real feelings, contemplating on ideas decidedly important to him. Youth may not hit the mark on every one of its frequent lunges at profundity, but if I have to listen to an artist trying to hit these kinds of emotional and cerebral notes, I’m happy with it being Sorrentino.