Paolo Sorrentino’s last effort, Youth, is finally released in the UK after touring the festivals across the world throughout 2015, noticeably Cannes where it left empty handed except for a lukewarm reputation (i.e. not controversial enough), and having been release pretty much everywhere around the world (except for Norway). Along the way, and like all Sorrentino’s previous movies, Youth has been gathering divergent opinions which are most often stronger than the point that some critics try to make.
Why did it take so long for a British co-production featuring two major British actors to be released in the UK remains some kind of a mystery which I won’t dwell on here to focus more on the qualities of the movie itself.
Youth tells the story of Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine, Get Carter), a retired music composer and conductor who is spending his holiday with his daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz, The Constant Gardner) and his best friend Mick (Harvey Keitel, The Piano), a former successful movie director, in a luxury resort in Switzerland where they are all confronted to their past, love, regret and.. youth.
With the recent death of one of Italia’s last great master, Ettore Scola (A Special Day, it is comforting to see that there is still excitement and diversity in Italian movies like when they were among those which changed the face of cinema (from the neorealist movement initiated by directors like Roberto Rosselini (Germany Year Zero), Vittorio De Sica (Umberto D.), Luchino Visconti (Ossessione) or Federico Fellini (La Strada) to the glorious 60s). Authors like Nanni Moretti (Mia Madre), Gabriele Salvatores (I’m Not Scared), Giuseppe Tornatore (The Unknown Woman), Matteo Garrone (Gomorrah) and Sorrentino participate in this legacy and show that with different styles and mentality, you can still treat important topics.
For Sorrentino specifically, there is primarily a will to juxtapose beauty and ugliness in the same shots (many, if not all, the shots in The Great Beauty) and uses beautiful images to talk about serious topics in a similar way that directors like Visconti or Fellini did before.
As in his previous movies, the director casts, in the lead roles, senior actors which are in perfect adequacy with his obsession about time. In Youth, he observes youth and old age via the prism of different types of characters (old conductor, old director, young daughter, young actor, young model, old footballer, old actress) to show the wide range of regrets that people can experience. This is particularly clear with the different interpretations of youth that Fred and Mick have and the regrets they spawned but also in two crucial and poignant scenes involving Lena and the older actress played by Jane Fonda (Klute), Brenda Morel. The director uses the world of show business to contrast universal emotions such as abandonment or reject.
Sorrentino, like other directors before him, has been criticised for his visual style under the argument that beauty cannot be real. For the director, this is the opposite; beauty and reality clearly go together.
Hence, Youth is helmed by aesthetical and dreamy images such as carefully structured shots of people seating on garden furniture, a bathrobe parade, paintings of naked bodies bathed in infernal light or floating in water. Therefore Sorrentino tries to discuss important ideas with sublime (Fred’s dream) or clever images (Mick’s telescope scene).
If there are numerous classic sequences and characters in this movie, which some might call cheap, Sorrentino miraculously manages to orchestrate them, in a similar way that Fred conducts his “bell symphony”, giving an additional depth.
Unfortunately, the movie being slightly too long, every now and then the accumulation of beautiful and meaningful imagery can give an impression of stylistic exercise; for instance the repeated slow motion sequences showing the young masseuse playing her dancing game.
Finally, Sorrentino has managed to gather around him a wonderful cast, headed by Michael Caine, which increases even more the pleasure of the experience. The Alfie interpret shows, after an amazing performance in the recent Harry Brown, that despite being more than 80 years old, he can still bear the weight of a clever movie on his shoulders and that he deserves to be used for more than a prestigious supporting actor in big Hollywood productions. Harvey Keitel brings a genuine sensitivity to Mick and demonstrates that he can do more than make money on the back of one of his emblematic roles in adverts for a brand of insurances. Although very different whether physically or in their acting style, the two actors demonstrate a perfect connection which undoubtedly contributes to the emotional attachment towards the characters.