At the age of 45, Paolo Sorrentino should have every right to still be regarded as an up and coming auteur, with us happily forgiving his flaws on account of his relatively young age and evident desire to make beautiful, mesmerising movies. Thats how I felt until the pretty but limp This Must Be The Place, but now that hes made The Great Beauty and has a deserved Oscar in the glass cabinet, hes now inevitably going to be held to higher standards. While Youth isnt as ambitious or spectacular as his crowning achievement so far, it calmly continues to showcase his passion and flair for visual storytelling.
Youth follows the late-life crisis of retired and revered composer Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine), who is spending time in an Alpine spa hotel with a ragtag assortment of other guests who are ailing either creatively and physically; these include a bloated retired footballer in the vein of Diego Maradona, an actor preparing to play the role of Adolf Hitler (Paul Dano), and ageing film director and Freds best friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), who is seeking to come up with the perfect ending for his swansong movie. In amidst all this is Freds daughter and assistant Lena, whos trying to find her feet after breaking up from a long-term relationship.
The whole setup sounds like it could be gearing up to be a Best Exotic Marigold-style celebration of life and love across the generations, as the hotels residents - isolated from the chaos of the outside world - get revitalised by chance encounters and the simple things. But it doesnt take much time with the stagnating Fred Ballinger to see that Sorrentino wont offer us such sentimentality quite as easily. Ballinger has decided that theres something - possibly fatally - wrong with him, and is quickly revealed to have been a poor father and husband - despite being in perpetual mourning over his wife. He refuses to play at the Queens Jubilee, doesnt want a biography written about him, and seems all but resigned to fading into non-existence.
Harvey Keitels Mick, meanwhile, is the antithesis of Ballinger, who refuses to let go of his passions in his old age. Like Fred, his body and mind are withering - as indicated by their casual chats about how many drops of piss they managed to squeeze out that morning, and his claims not to remember whether he slept with a woman that Fred was infatuated with in their youth. But unlike Fred, Mick is in love with what he does, at least until hes forced to question himself after an aggressive, excellent cameo from Jane Fonda as venomous Hollywood diva Brenda Morel.
Caine and Keitels performances are the beating heart of the film, and their almost boyish relationship is the kind that we all hope to have with others in our dotage. But the narrative is equally propelled by Sorrentinos excellent forays into surrealism. Whether its the balloon-like ex-footballer skillfully doing keep-uppies with a Tennis ball, Ballinger conducting an orchestra of bell-collared cows, or Mick being haunted by all the women hes cast in leading roles over the years, these perfectly-orchestrated moments are both poignant and funny, and all neatly epitomise the highs and lows that come with great talent. These metaphysical moments are satisfying and plentiful, compensating foramostlyuneventful plotline. Youth is a film of internal struggles that, even if shared, must ultimately be faced alone, and Sorrentinos magical style expresses this beautifully.
At moments, Youth slips into preaching through dialogue what could more effectively be expressed in images. In particular, Paul Danos tortured actor is too vocal and sanctimonious about his creative inner conflicts, and a little too earnest in a film that mostly does an excellent job of balancing mesmerising cinematography with a wonderfully understated sense of humour.
At times, Youth slips into stagnation, as the characters keep revolving around the same old turmoils, but always comes bouncing back with timely bursts of energy. Each resident of that sleepy Alpine hotel - right down to the shy, teenage girls still discovering who they are - is a vessel of desires and potential thats waiting to be discovered or revived, and each gets their moment to shine. In contrast to all the other characters, Freds apathy reaches the point where it becomes frustrating - at moments unbearable - to watch, though we remain engaged because we desperately want him to break through.
Youth deserves credit for never fully succumbing to sentimentality. Even in its most triumphant moments, there is an underlying melancholy - a constant feeling that the search for creative, romantic and all kinds of fulfillment is eternal. Its a dreamy, bittersweet ode to the permanence of talent and the need to express it, and its befitting of an auteur whose passion for his craft shines through in every scene.
Youth isavailable to own on Digital Download from 23rdMay, followed by the DVD and Blu-ray on 30thMay 2016