Despite a slightly stilted script, Paolo Sorrentino’s eye for indelible imagery elevates the impressive Youth to the level of art.
Youth is Sorrentino’s thematic follow-up to his 2013 masterpiece The Great Beauty. While unable (and without attempting) to recapture the arching ambition of the latter, Youth is meditative, visually assured and features Michael Caine’s best work in decades. Having seemed content in recent years with the role of Britain’s foremost Michael Caine impersonator, Sorrentino’s refreshingly engaged leading man is paired well with Harvey Keitel in a film which bounces purposefully between levity and pathos.
The plot follows successful classical composer Fred Ballinger (Caine), as he holidays at a luxury resort in the Swiss Alps. Hounded by the Queen’s emissary insistent on a return to conducting, he spends his time with film director Mick Boyle (Keitel), who is using the holiday as a means to write his final film – his ‘testament’, as he repeatedly calls it.
There is certainly no shortage of characters, and in other hands the film would seem overwrought and unfocused. Instead, there is an almost Robert Altman-like authenticity to the parade of characters, each person seeming integral to both the place and the tone. The camera lingers on and returns to the most minor of characters, the resort setting somehow treading the line between intimate realness and self-aware construction.
Thematically rich, Youth is replete with images of celebrity, from a grotesquely, incapacitatingly overweight Diego Maradona (played, in one of many bold moves, by a look-alike), to a less successful but nevertheless entertaining cameo from Paloma Faith. Paul Dano thrives as a self-professedly misunderstood actor, skating round the peripherals of Fred’s story for a seemingly indeterminate reason, setting up one of the best and most surprising visual reveals you’ll see in cinema all year. Rachel Weisz holds her own as Ballinger’s daughter and assistant, while a fine appearance from Jane Fonda as Boyle’s long-time star and diva strains under a heavier reliance on the script.
There is a real emotional complexity to Caine’s character; in a film largely sustained by rich, symbolic visuals, the direction of the dialogue within scenes is often unexpected, and the plot (such that it is) is gently languid and hard to predict. Sorrentino’s first language is Italian, and while he hardly has a tin ear for English speech, Youth does falter slightly in its dialogue, falling understandably short of the high bar set by the visuals. Were the content less ambitious, less thematically complex, the functionality of the dialogue may have been more problematic. As it is, however, the slight over-formality nicely serves the reflective, sterilised tone of the film.
More so than The Great Beauty, Youth perfectly encapsulates a sense of the particular. Of place and of time (or rather, of age), the tonal balance achieved here is rare and admirable. Without the backdrop of Berlusconi’s decadence, much of the socio-political contextual weight of The Great Beauty is absent, as are the inherently cinematic scenes of Italian excess. But Youth is more than just a character piece. It is intelligent, inventive cinema, as unashamedly playful as it is deceptively meaningful.