Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

Youth (La giovinezza)
directed by Paolo Sorrentino
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Youth comes to its surprising ending with octogenarian Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) conducting his most famous composition, Simple Song #3 . We see the audience, including Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, responding to the achingly beautiful music. Composed (in real life) by David Lang and nominated for an Oscar, the piece overflows with the emotions that Ballinger has been denying. As the soprano Suni Jo sings and the orchestra plays, the title of the film, freighted with meaning, appears in the background. Ballinger slowly turns and bows at the end of the performance, but instead of applause there is eerie silence. The director cuts suddenly and briefly to the aged filmmaker Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) back in Davos, Switzerland, where the film is set. Boyle is making a circle with his hands and looking through it as if it were a director’s lens. Then the credits roll.

At Cannes, where it competed for the Palme D’Or, Youth was greeted with a mixture of catcalls and cheers. The jury, chaired by the Coen brothers, gave it no prize, and the assessments of America’s mainstream film critics have ranged from the ecstatic to the derisive. One had it both ways: “gorgeous visuals, dazzling non sequiturs.” In truth, it is a moving meditation on old age, love, and the moral adventure of life.

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Youth is the work of Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino, whose The Great Beauty took the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 2013. His admirers think of him as the twenty-first century’s Fellini. Youth in fact reprises the mysterious spa images from (1963). But Fellini was deep into Jungian analysis when he made that unforgettable classic, which is filled with archetypal visions and autobiographical references. Sorrentino, though a psychologist in his own way, does not plumb such depths.

Borrowing the technique of Fellini’s later works, the film proceeds by visual episodes. Every mise en scène is an inventive work of art that dissolves into the next. In some there are mysterious figures in the shadowed background who bear no relation to the unfolding sequence of images. Some scenes are tableaux vivants; others are surreal and oneiric. Those of the sunlit Swiss mountain scape and meadows are astonishingly beautiful and vibrant. There is even a pop music video nightmare. A dominant mood, as Polish director Paweł Pawlikowski described it, is “melancholy and splendor.” But there are also moments of laugh-out-loud humor. And each of the actors has the challenge of an emotionally charged monologue. These are moments when Sorrentino’s characters come out from behind the reef of solipsism and reveal themselves to each other. This is his window into the human condition and the possibility of connection. In place of a plunge into the Jungian unconscious, there are aperçus and fragmented glimpses in the spirit of the philosopher-poet Novalis.

The film portrays the emotional crossroads of despair and integrity.

The film is an imaginative portrait of old age at the emotional crossroads where one way leads to despair and the other to integrity and resolve. It demands a lot of the audience: we must get past seeming absurdities to find the narrative that links the visual episodes. We must be willing to be surprised and reflect on the surreal and unexpected. An early scene in the film, for example, shows St. Mark’s Square in Venice flooded with water. Ballinger, in the small hesitant steps of an eighty-two-year-old, moves cautiously across a narrow walkway above the rising water. From the other direction comes the ultimate voluptuous woman, in the stride cultivated by models on the fashion runway. They meet; the old man is briefly pressed against the young woman in her one-piece bathing suit. Each continues down the walkway. She disappears, and he begins to sink into the rising water. Is this Ballinger’s premonition of suffocation and death? Is this woman the sensuous memory of passionate life? We learn that it is Ballinger’s dream when we see him startle awake and call out “Melanie, Melanie.” But it is up to the audience to discover the scene’s meaning and significance. We do not yet know that Melanie is his wife, and only later will we learn the woman is Miss Universe.

Sorrentino’s style requires a superb cinematographer and production designer, and he has them in Luca Bigazzi and Ludovica Ferrario, his longtime collaborators. Music, both diegetic and otherwise, has always been important in Sorrentino’s films. Here lyrics and melody function as a hypertext. Despite his visual style, Sorrentino has a clear literary idea of what he wants to portray, and his detailed screenplay can be read on the Web. He sent it to Caine, Keitel, Rachel Weisz (Lena Ballinger), Paul Dano (Jimmy Tree), and Jane Fonda (Brenda Morel); all were convinced to join the cast. Caine has told journalists that the script coaxed him out of retirement.

Sorrentino set the film in the Berghotel Schatzalp, a Swiss resort that becomes in his cinematography the ultimate luxury hotel for celebrities and the super-rich. The daily routines of the clientele and their servants add an important thematic upstairs/downstairs element to this visual opera. Through her dormitory window, we see Ballinger’s masseuse doing seemingly exotic stretches and dances; then Sorrentino’s camera enters the room, and we realize she is playing an Xbox game with Kinect. It is a vignette that speaks to Sorrentino’s aesthetic of surprises, of which there are many.

Among the guests at the Berghotel is the world’s greatest soccer player, now obese and barely able to walk, who performs a miracle with a tennis ball. He is a caricature of Diego Maradona, who had tattoos of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara; Sorrentino’s Maradona has a likeness of Karl Marx covering his entire back. Another guest is a Buddhist monk who for years has been meditating and trying to levitate; in Youth he succeeds. There are also two young children whose unexpected kindness to their elders is another glimpse into the human condition and the possibility of grace. And there is an American actor, Dano’s Jimmy Tree, preparing for a role in a German film. Dano, an incredibly appealing film actor, will provide one of the great surprises of Youth.

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Ballinger has been summering at the resort for twenty years, often with his friend Boyle. They are both at the octogenarian crossroads, but approaching it in different ways. Boyle wants to finish his life with a flourish. He is there with five young writers helping him write a screenplay, Life’s Last Day. Its protagonist is on his deathbed; the writers are struggling to decide what his last lines should be. The film is to be Boyle’s “sentimental, intellectual, and moral testament”—the best film he has ever done. Behind his extroversion, ambition, and good humor we come to sense his precarious self-esteem and his desperation. He claims his friendship with Ballinger is based on the principle that they only tell each other “good things.” What he means is that they do not confide in each other.

The two friends do share their complaints about their prostates and their difficulty urinating, and they discuss what remains of a lifetime of memory. Libido is among these, an item of nostalgia rather than pressing concern. This gives a certain poignancy to their encounter with Miss Universe, whose prize includes a week at the luxury resort. They are reclining on the side of the heated pool when Miss Universe appears splendidly naked. She barely notices the goggle-eyed old men as she languidly enters the pool and reclines across from them. The male gaze has not disappeared from this film, but looking is the only thing these octogenarians can do.

Although their friendship is important in the film, and the scenes of these two great character actors together are worth the price of admission, Ballinger is the central figure. He seems to have given up music and withdrawn into himself, bottling up all emotions. An introvert, he wants to go quietly to his grave. When asked what he does all day, he says, “They say I am apathetic, so I don’t do anything.” Ballinger repeatedly turns down the Queen’s emissary, who offers him knighthood in exchange for conducting Simple Song #3 at a celebration of Prince Philip’s birthday. (The prince, like everyone else, thinks it is Ballinger’s best work.) Ballinger insists he is retired, but he has not really given up on music. He repeatedly crinkles a candy wrapper in his hand to a rhythm beating in his mind. And in one marvelous scene he conducts a herd of cows whose bells ring as they moo. A flock of birds rises from a tree, flapping their wings during the crescendo of Ballinger’s symphony of nature.

Ballinger is not alone at the resort. Surprisingly, he shares his bedroom with his married adult daughter Lena. She acts as his assistant, fielding requests that still pursue him. Besides the Queen’s emissary, a French publisher is insisting that Ballinger write his memoir. What is behind the seemingly serene relationship between this father and daughter, who can share a bedroom on vacation? Lena erupts after she learns her husband (Boyle’s son) is leaving her for a rock star. Her monologue is a chilling and tearful indictment of her father: distant from his children, unfaithful to his wife, experimenting with a homosexual liaison, living only for his music. In the judgment of the world, she reminds him, he is no Stravinsky. That he “never loved anyone”—certainly not her mother—is Lena’s final verdict. In time Lena will find the liberating pleasure of a new man, and she will discover in Ballinger’s long monologue that, in his own way, he loves her and her mother.

In Sorrentino’s universe even an octogenarian can discover a better self. Ballinger does; Boyle does not. Fonda’s Morel, an aging diva who has starred in all of Boyle’s films, shows up to tell him that he is passé, that cinema is dead, and that his last three films “were shit.” The future is television, so she is signing up to do a series instead of taking a role in his new work. It is either the worst or the best performance Fonda has ever given, depending on which critic you read, but by everyone’s account it is over the top. It is the death knell for Boyle.

Much more happens in this grand operatic film. Even if Youth says nothing new, as some critics insist, its beauty, surprises, and fragmentary insights into the human condition have much to offer.