Youth (2015): Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino’s magical cinematic tapestry which juxtaposes the pining for youth against the youth itself

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Originally written by Roopa Barua for A potpourri of vestiges.

SummaryFred and Mick, two old friends, are on vacation in an elegant hotel at the foot of the Alps. Fred, a composer and conductor, is now retired. Mick, a film director, is still working. They look with curiosity and tenderness on their children’s confused lives, Micks enthusiastic young writers, and the other hotel guests. While Mick scrambles to finish the screenplay for what he imagines will be his last important film, Fred has no intention of resuming his musical career. But someone wants at all costs to hear him conduct again.

Youth is a gentle breeze, youth is the petals of a flower, youth is walking softly on dewdrops, youth is smooth alabaster skin, youth is lithe, youth is buxom, youth is… a pining.          

Youth is a noun, a verb, a metaphor or a simile.

Youth is everything and more to the two central characters in Paolo Sorrentino’s film ‘Youth’–Retired British music composer Mr. Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) and film director Mick (Harvey Keitel).

Set up in the grandest tradition of majestic Italian cinema in the footfall of the maestros Fellini, Bertolucci and Rosselini, Sorrento weaves us a magical tapestry of pining for youth. In this film, both the pining for youth and youth itself stand facing each other. The pining and the reality stare each other in the face and often question and tease each other.

Fred and Mick are vacationing in a Swiss medspa with Leda (Rachel Weissz) who is Fred’s daughter. Leda has just been let go by her husband—Mick’s son for a woman ‘who is better in bed’. And then we have the rest of the ensemble cast in the hotel—a young actor (Paul Dano) prepping for his next role, a completely out of shape football star (Maradonna, anyone?) and the reigning Miss Universe who is given a free stay at the hotel as part of a bag of goodies for winning the crown. Youth is very similar stylistically to Sorrentino’s Oscar-winning film ‘The Great Beauty‘ which also revolved around the trial and tribulations of an ageing man who lived in the spotlight. Sorrentino’s operatic and stylized treatment of his work has become synonymous with his films and this film treats on the same ground with exuberance and flourish in its style.

Caine as Fred has been asked to play one of his significant pieces—one of his earlier masterpieces ‘Simple Songs’ for the Queen of England but he refuses because he wrote it only for his wife. She can perform no more. So he turns down the Queen’s invitation.

And then the imagery and visions start… into a Fellini-like world we enter—the symmetrical elderlies in the hot tub and sauna, the sensuous masseuse in her abundance, the solarized images of old male guests getting young girls or the lack thereof, the Miss Universe catching all unaware by her nudity, the failing football star practicing football with a tennis ball… the list goes on into the territory of the freak and the bizarre as just as a grand Italian maestro could do. And the relentless music score that just about levitates every freak visual to the extreme.He starts questioning Keitel’s involvement with a girl named Gilda whom they were both fond of as youngsters. Never mind that they are both now nearing eighty and discussions of teenage intimacy are beyond any relevance. He just has to know whether Keitel got to have a more intimate relationship with Gilda. It just bothers him and stays fixed in his mind. The nostalgia for youth and his constant quest to find the most invisible moments that ever existed leads him to constantly meander through obtuse territories of teenage love, early marital love, virility, alertness, and, yes finally bodily functions.  At every step of the way, he is a pained soul who lives completely in the present and hopes to find the past in it. His is a disillusioned face breaking into a taciturn smile, grandfatherly in his approach and almost always serenely happy when he encounters a young beauty. Subliminal he is every passing moment.

Sorrentino plays in a mindscape, which juxtaposes desire versus the real deal. The real deal of youth is raw beauty but it is shallow and inconsequential. After all the hype of the Miss Universe arriving, she gets a full frontal nudity shot and is then almost banished from the film. The young actor is good company but he is more spent and tired than the old ones, the young lovers are still trying to outdo each other in the department of amour. Sorrentino keeps revisiting the masseuse in her dance studio where she is more style than substance. The sudden visions of youth are angular, jarring and grotesque… the swooping camera shots add to the allure… what plays on in Caine’s mind is just some fragments of a flight of fancy.Keitel’s character seems to be more laidback and just a tad confused. He is writing a film with a new cast of scriptwriters who are all young bumbling idiots. But everything falls apart when Hollywood diva Brenda (Jane Fonda) visits him and tells him that she cannot act in his films and gives her monologue about the state of Hollywood. Sorrentino pegs the monologue in a surreal, exaggerated and fantastic manner albeit with some truth.

Sorrentino layers his film with his perspective that our own relationship with the future is a relationship we develop with ourselves. The future gives us freedom and freedom gives us the feeling of youth. The more we stop thinking about the future, the sooner we age.  And then we look back at what we lost never to get back again. Caine finally comes to terms with the fact that show must go on and he has to perform for the queen at her invite. He surreally visits his paralyzed wife and spends a few tender moments with her telling her everything. This is perhaps one of the most enduring scenes in the film. The vision of the wife is one stone cold paralyzed person… we don’t really know if she heard anything. But Caine is all effusive and gushing… as young as one can imagine him to be… and absolutely vulnerable too. This is one brilliant piece of acting from one of the biggest actors of our times.

By some quirky semblance of homage to an alter ego tradition, the film touches upon two genres that seem to fade in the contemporary world… music (as represented by Caine) and cinema (as represented by Keitel). But then they both reinvent and renew and live on for more time to come. This is exactly the scope of the characters of Caine and Keitel who are fading from their former glorious selves but still seem to come back. Caine and Keitel seem to be almost a composite for Marcello Mastroianni in Fellini’s albeit with less of a megalomaniac touch. Their best is clearly behind them but they were significantly attempting to carry on with their work.

A Still from Paolo Sorrentino's Youth
A Still from Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth

Caine finally decides to sing for the Queen at her special ceremony. Thus in the grandest flush of a multi-piece orchestra complete with a soprano singer, he delivers his piece of music ‘Simple Songs’ which ends up like a bad rehash of the Spice Girls meets Miss Fifties pulp. 

Sorrentino has played largely with the surreal images in the film. A dreamscape for Leda where former husband and his lover have a video mash up hurtling down a highway on steroids or the St Mark’s Square in Venice, all underwater, and a soulless spa with weird figures swimming around, he has managed to captured what we think is the fantasy of youth or being young. Youth is simple yet conniving, sweet yet terrifying and most importantly probably inconsequential. This is the absurdity of Sorrentino’s film, an absurdity that almost obstructs us when we start having empathy for the characters. A work that stands to show us the simple power of youth and yet the totally inconsequential and transactional nature of this power. This in itself is probably the high point of Sorrentino’s Youth.

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