Youth is old. Imbued with an almost overbearing maturity in both pacing and theme, the oddly titled labor of love by Italian writer-director Paolo Sorrentino is a unique – though often inaccessible – examination of what it means to age and what it takes to stay young.
Michael Caine is Fred Ballinger, a classical composer vacationing in the Swiss Alps. Retired in every sense of the word, he's content to while away his final days, taking joy only in his odd friendship with fellow septuagenarian Mick (Harvey Keitel). Though Fred's daughter (Rachel Weisz) comes to stay at the resort with him, and he strikes up a casual friendship with a famous actor (Paul Dano), Fred's world is a lonely one. With his wife either dead or divorced – in a nice twist, we don't know her status until the end – the maestro is alone, left to wander the emotional graveyard of his life.
Populating the resort is an assortment of interesting but empty characters, people who might have stepped out of a Federico Fellini film, albeit a rather tame one. There's the aging and overweight soccer star (Roly Serrano), the young masseuse (Luna Zimic Mijovic) whose age and outlook suggest a vastly different time and place, and the sublimely unclothed Miss Universe (Madalina Diana Ghenea). And to add much-needed plot complexity, there's a brief but memorable appearance by Jane Fonda (as Mick's muse) and Alex Macqueen as an emissary for Queen Elizabeth II, who wants Fred to conduct one last performance of his famous "Simple Songs."
But Fred is not a simple song, and neither is Youth. There's a depth and complexity lurking beneath its slow tracking shots and careful framing, though most of its raw emotion is kept at a distance, overshadowed at times by Sorrentino's devotion to aesthetic. Indeed, the film, like Fred, is emotionally stunted on the surface but brimming with life underneath.
Structurally, the movie is a lazy river instead of a road. Failing to build much forward narrative motion until its jaw-dropping, yet slightly overlong, conclusion, Youth is more a collection of visual poems than an epic ballad. It may not be a "great beauty" like the director's previous offering, but it's still one of the prettiest films of the year and proves again that Sorrentino is arguably the most visionary poet in cinema today.
Caine is in total command, but it's Keitel who is most surprising, thanks in part to his great chemistry with his co-star. Playing an aging film director struggling to write his cinematic "testament" (appropriately titled Life's Last Day), Keitel displays a sweetness and sensitivity that is almost as effective as Sorrentino's surrealist touches and Luca Bigazzi's cinematography. The latter element may be the real star, as it seems to almost float on air, or be sculpted from glass, as if the slightest touch could bring the entire film shattering to ground.
"I've grown old without understanding how I got here," Fred tells his doctor.
The film fails in its effort to fully explain that journey. But its attempt is beautiful.
4 out of 5 stars