Movie Review: Youth (2015)

youth3Over the course of his relatively short feature film career, Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino has done his part in revitalizing the lost art of experimentally thought-provoking and amorously lush cinema that defined the olden European greats. As a devotee to both the surrealism of Federico Fellini and to the romanticism of Bernardo Bertolluci, Sorrentino creates lyrical and quixotic works that beautifully flow like a piece of orchestrated music, where sumptuous imagery, grand philosophical ideas, and emotionally resonant themes blend together like individual instruments in a full-scale symphony. A familiar central theme to his works would be in his eloquent ruminations on the concept of existential stasis, whether it’s a sense of stagnant morality of a corrupt politician in Il Divo (2008), a physical motionlessness for his adrift mobster in The Consequences of Love (2004), or a hedonistic lifestyle limbo for a writer in his Oscar-winning The Great Beauty (2013). In his latest film Youth—the second of his English speaking films since the bizarre reflection on alienation in This Must Be the Place (2011)—Sorrentino creates a corporeal purgatory represented by an idyllic health spa in the Swiss Alps, where characters reflect and experience life’s ebb and flow of positive and negative gifts: the elusive beauty as well as the haunting devastation of memory, the thriving inspiration and atrophying loss of creativity, and the gainful joys juxtaposed with the harmful fleeting of love. It’s a film that feels intuitively and precisely composed, utilizing a circular repetition and inert momentum as a metaphysical state of mind for another of Sorrentino’s stationary protagonists, semi-retired composer Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine). Through Fred’s melancholic disengagement from the world—an understandable avoidance of more pain and disillusionment—the film explores the universal conflict of youth’s lack of wisdom in experiencing its ample opportunities, and aging’s lack of opportunities even when you fully realize what’s been lost. Youth conceives its motifs with harmonious intent, and though minor flaws exist, they seem like welcomed blemishes that humanize the immaculate cinematic experience.

Following in his deliberate homage to Fellini in The Great Beauty (2013)—a film that resembles Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) in its meandering on Rome’s timeless landscape of absurd, exquisite beauty— Sorrentino’s Youth centers on an artist unwilling or unable to create, an obvious wink to the late Italian filmmaker’s masterpiece 8 ½ (1963). Composer Fred Ballinger has accepted a willing withdrawal from the world, and subsequently people—minus his best friend, aging filmmaker Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel)—which sees him constantly churning in his reticent grief. “You eliminate one person, and all of a sudden the whole world changes. Like in a marriage,” states Fred, and it’s the sort of dialogue that alludes to the character’s preoccupations towards denying his own vulnerability, but perhaps it’s also an overarching theme to the film as a whole. Mick, however, has refused to stop dreaming, as he slaves away on the ending of his cinematic “testament” with a small horde of young screenwriters. The aging filmmaker’s best days might be behind him, but he revels in the beauty of the creative process and admires the young talents around him. These two octogenarian artists are separated by each of their ability to accept encroaching mortality, with Fred having accepted a death by stasis and Mick naïvely, yet nobly, pressing on with his artistic endeavors. Their differing views represent the alternate ways of accepting the end of life’s inevitability, and the film generates equal sympathy for Fred’s pessimistic wallowing and Mick’s energetic delusion. The warm friendship created here in Youth is mildly autobiographical—with the film being dedicated to Sorrentino’s late friend and mentor, director Francisco Rosi—and probably reflects on pertinent existential questions important to Sorrentino himself. And in creating a setting that’s a purifying blank slate for its characters, Sorrentino is able to effortlessly weave together a thoughtful meditation on the importance of creativity, the exquisite wonders and undeniable complications of life, and the ability to keep living when your familiar existence seems meaningless.


Because Youth is technically plotless, the film’s idiosyncratic focus is on the inward-looking characters, all of whom experience devastating realistic confrontations, hyper-realistic scenarios, and, of course, surrealist deviations that unfold their inner fears, desires, and beliefs. Whether it’s Fred imagining he’s conducting nature—with its swaying winds, prominent cowbells, and humorous animal noises that build to a clanging overture—or Mick beholding a meadow of every actress he ever directed, each individual sequence acts like a thematic refrain within the same musical whole of a beautifully crafted piece of music. Even the minor characters give the film a musically textured sensibility: the silent monk willing himself to levitate; the lumbering and portly retired South American soccer star, clearly inspired by Diego Maradona; a pretentious young actor fearful of pop-culture marginalization (an exquisite Paul Dano); and the disarming allure and quick-wit of a newly titled Miss Universe. They’re all wandering in their ostensibly temporary visitation to this gorgeous purgatory that Sorrentino has carefully crafted, and each of them contribute to the filmmaker’s vision of attempting to “capture the human soul on film,” as his longtime producer Nicola Guiliano has stated of the director’s creative intent. And that very soul does reveal itself, mostly in the graceful performance of Michael Caine as the haunted composer Fred. It’s a career-best performance that finds its emotive strength in Caine’s ability to slowly reveal a character’s inner turmoil, as his embrace of subtle gestures and mournful looks generate pure feeling even as the character desperately tries to avoid it. As a complimentary screen presence Harvey Keitel also gives a career-defining performance embracing a gentleness and warmth he’s rarely had the opportunity to portray. Some might find it difficult to sympathize or even swallow a film that’s surrounded by high culture, beautiful abundance, and European decadence, where characters mourn their previous stature and their personal difficulties in aging (a luxury in many places). But Sorrentino has the ability to transcend specifics, and here he ignites a thought-provoking meditation on life’s universal gains and losses, no matter your class, stature, or age.

Sorrentino’s ability to transcend setting specifics is most certainly ingrained in his visual filmmaking, a combination of offbeat rhythmic intuition and impeccably crafted scene traditionalism that beautifully connects his characters, situations, and developments to an already chosen theme. Repeating his poetic combination of visual extravagance amidst spiritual emptiness, as he did with The Great Beauty (2013), every sequence throughout Youth radiates with gorgeous attributes while simultaneously critiquing the emotional avoidance of its central characters—a utilization of aesthetic repletion as a visual contradiction to the interior suffering of the film’s characters. Working with cinematographer and longtime collaborator Luca Bigazzi (Il Divo, The Great Beauty), Sorrentino allows imagery to guide the experience, letting subtle framing and delicate movements to explain the poetry of the scene. It’s a style of filmmaking that trusts it’s audience’s intelligence and ability to ride the lyrical waves of revelation, never allowing over-explanation or constant exposition to diminish the experience of immersive emotion. It’s definitely a film that’s based on the purity of feeling, and that immersive aspect is supremely aided by the immensely beautiful music from Pulitzer-Prize winning composer David Lang, who has crafted a diverse soundtrack of original compositions (serving as Fred’s compositions) and collaborations with other musicians: Mark Kozelek, David Byrne, and Grammy-winning Korean soprano, Sumi Jo. To be enraptured by Youth is to allow yourself to be enveloped by its aesthetic wonders, because deep within them lies an existential reflection on the human experience. Certainly there are conditional flaws to such sweeping filmmaking, the obvious of which is that physical tedium in setting, character, and theme carries with it a dangerous risk to approach actual tedium (a consequence of some particular sequences). But those moments are beautiful imperfections in a film that pulls you in through its intense splendor, its psychological insights, and its philosophical ponderings, all of which don’t necessarily provide answers, because pondering the right questions allows you to find your own.


Youth should act as a reminder as to what the power of cinema can potentially be, an expression of emotional realism and a dreamlike state of being that can only be perfected through the visual art of filmmaking. Though it’s set in a singular location, the film is expressively told through an epic sweeping visual style that opens its physical setting through imagination, broadens its scope through philosophical contemplation, and invites its emotional experience through universal truth. Sorrentino has adopted this old-school methodology from some of Europe’s cinematic greats—an artistic blend of beautiful naturalism and surrealist eccentricity that ponders questions about the human experience—and has modernized its poetic qualities to be experienced again, viewed through a fresh lens. Some have accused the Italian auteur of flagrant cinematic larceny, narrowly empty reflections, and a male-centric gaze that diminishes his artistic scope. However, it’s clear that Sorrentino has a humble respect for his predecessors, and utilizes the gift of homage to pay tribute to their artistic sensibilities that cautiously influence the Italian filmmaker’s presentations. Everything about Youth—from its aged protagonists, to its reflections on creativity, to its use of women as defiant muses—suggests that it’s a personal love letter to the beauty, influence, and inspiration of cinema. The additional fact that it leaves us with a restfully warm contemplation on the complexities of aging and the elusive definition of youth, makes it all the more inspiring in its existence.

Grade: A-

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