'Meditative' is not perhaps the epithet that comes to mind in relation to most films, but it is entirely apt when applied to Paolo Sorrentini's new film, Youth, which will no doubt be fallen upon avidly by the many admirers of his previous film, The Great Beauty (2013). Several minutes before the opening title, Youth begins with a young woman singing 'You've got the love I need to see me through'; we wonder if some sort of thematic announcement is being made. But Sorrentini is subtler than that.
So what is the film meditating on? Its essential preoccupations are with age and memory, how memory connects age with youth, though not always accurately. Youth is what age tries to remember, sometimes only to reshape it. Or are we more likely to accept what one character claims: 'You say emotions are overrated, but emotions are all we've got'? Or, whereas youth is prepared to be guided by such a dictum and to act rashly as a result, does age settle for more caution?
Yes, the film is characterised by such a reflective mode, but that doesn't mean it is no more than a talk-fest. Its underlying meditative practices are incarnated in the lives and behaviour of two old men who have fetched up in a luxurious Swiss mountain resort. They are Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine), a composer–conductor who feels his glory days are over and even declines an invitation to play before royalty, and Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), a film director who is less ready to accept that his triumphs are things of the past and is trying to set up a new film. That is, they are reacting in diverse ways to the inescapable fact of age, Sorrentini – director and screenwriter – ferrets around their feints and frustrations and small successes in ways that keep cliché and sentimentality at bay.
This is a film driven by ideas rather than by frantic action (Tom Cruise, are you listening?). It seems, from the word go, to be intended for an adult audience. The bond between the two old men, which is at the film's heart, is the more affecting for the way it embraces their differences. They are both involved with young – or, at least, younger people – and the film's texture is enriched by how they manage this, their lives made more complex by the connection and disjunction between Fred's daughter, Lena (Rachel Weisz) and Mick's son, Julian (Ed Stoppard). Fred hasn't been a model father nor, according to Lena, a model husband, and Mick can't be said to deal wisely with Julian. The film gains in verisimilitude by not making too much of the problems of the young, who also include an actor Jimmy (Paul Dano), who hangs around the hotel as he muses about his forthcoming role (Dano gets one wonderfully comic scene in make-up for this). Then there is the recurring spectacle of Mick trying to make headway on the script for his proposed film with a gaggle of eager but not especially helpful young would-be writers.
'Youth ... will no doubt be fallen upon avidly by the many admirers of his previous film, The Great Beauty'
All of this is set in Swiss Alpine scenery of breathtaking beauty, but this doesn't come across as mindless pictorialism on the filmmakers' part. The majesty of the setting seems to mock human attempts to deal with matters like age and youth and memory. On a couple of occasions, the vast green slopes are used as a backcloth for the fantasies of the elderly protagonists, as when Mick imagines all his past leading ladies assembling on them. Fred has his moment, too, when the setting becomes more than mere scenery.
Not many films are daring enough to cast their leads from the ranks of senior citizens, but Sorrentino knows exactly what to do with Caine (eighty-two) and Keitel (seventy-six), let alone Jane Fonda (seventy-eight), in a humorous, foul-mouthed cameo. As to the latter, the film has built up our expectations about her late entry, and in an improbable blonde wig she touches up Mick's memories about his years as a filmmaker and insists she is doing him a favour, 'saving [his] life and reputation', by pulling out of his new film. Caine, a great screen actor who has always seemed to inhabit roles rather than just acting them, never puts a curmudgeonly foot wrong as Fred, for whom 'Music is all I understand. It doesn't need words or experience.' The unpredictable, charismatic Keitel gets to nail his character with: 'I invent stories ... I have to believe everything in order to make things up.' It is as though screenwriter Sorrentino has thought through to the core of these old pros who have reached a stage when summing up comes naturally.
Youth is not a perfect film (it has occasional longueurs), but it is a rare movie that keeps our hearts and mind persistently engaged.
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