Paolo Sorrentino moves away from cynicism in “Youth.”
Paolo Sorrentino’s 2013 film The Great Beauty, for which he won an academy award, was a painful one. Not because of the depths of feeling it explored, but because of all the sentiment it avoided – it followed an aging writer through his cynicism and emotional walls while placing him in places of immense beauty and wonder. The film hurt – it was a tale of loss, of heartbreak and of fear leading to the safety of apathy, an examination of how beauty can be as empty as anything else if one has lost enough, for long enough. Youth feels like a natural and welcome follow-up. It is a warmer picture, and it is more, not less, painful than the last. All the sensitivity earned by The Great Beauty (“La Grande Bellezza,” in Italian) can be felt pulsating underneath the texture of this equally as gorgeous and infinitely more intimate film.
First, the characters: There is Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine), whose renowned composing career is as equally part of the past as is his wife. He spends his summers at an ultra-lux hotel in Switzerland, occupied by encounters with great fields, lakes, forests and mountains, with world-famous artists, with swimming holes and daily massages; he watches evening shows by American pop stars and Chinese performance artists, he hikes on snowy summits and through lobbies of scant, modernistic lighting, marveling at the perfection of still-youthful women; he exists in a hidden-away hive of beauty both artificial and natural, permanent and momentous. Fred seems, on the surface, indifferent to his environment, but we are never fooled. Underneath his steady, soft gaze lies a subtle pulse of immense feeling, and Caine’s performance gives us an awareness of this tenderness: we watch Fred take in and register his surroundings, even as his natural temperament remains above the world of the sentimental.
Then there is his lifelong friend Mick (Harvey Keitel), a director and screenwriter, who either lacks Fred’s self-awareness or is just inclined to indulge his id a bit more than Fred might. Their stories, separately, are moving; together, their reflexivity is illuminating.
There is Fred’s daughter, Lena (Rachel Weisz), whose own journey feels achingly honest in its limited perspective: her interactions with her father, and her opinions as to his actions, reveal far more about Lena than they do about Fred. There is Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano, in his second of two exceptional performances this year), a world-famous actor researching a role and longing for meaningful work. There is the young woman who recently won the Miss Universe pageant, who represents something that feels somehow central to the older and younger men’s lives. There is Mick’s team of young writers, two of whom are falling in love, though they don’t know it yet. There is a middle-aged mountain climber who falls in love with Lena. There is a celebrity of unknown origin, a massive man with a Karl Marx tattoo on his back, whose personal nurse wheels an oxygen tank behind him at all times. There is Fred’s masseuse, who spends her evenings dancing in front of an Xbox with a reverent joy. There is a young woman in glasses who floats about the hotel like a ghost, accompanying the guests whenever they feel they need accompaniment. There is an elderly couple whose silent dinners Fred and Mick watch nightly, enraptured. And there is Mick’s lifelong leading lady, a harbinger of doom, played with relish by Jane Fonda.
This cast of incredibly distinct characters comprise more a mosaic than a web, as their emotions and experiences seem to bleed into and effect each other in a rich compound of interpersonal experience. La Grande Bellezza was a mobile film: it took us through modern day Rome by foot, car, and boat, almost as if challenging its protagonist, with every new, magnificent image, to retain his indifference. Youth, instead, mostly consists of stillness, as if challenging its many heroes to sit, breathe, and not share their experience with us and with each other.
The trailer might initially pique interest because of its seeming meditation on the nature of age and experience, and those moments do come, in their way, but they are not the mission: the intellectual is put on hold here for the sake of sensitivity (Mick’s final words are “Emotion is all we’ve got”), and it is a sensitivity rendered so masterfully that it feels defining of the film without ever being more than slightly apparent. The images, from frame to frame, contain so well the beauty of the place, the meeting of the old and young, the fake and real, that we get an understanding of Fred, Mick, Jimmy and the rest’s tenderness simply by being made aware of the grandness of their environment. We realize how much they must be feeling because we are made to see what they see, in a way that welcomes wonder and revelation. This is why, in retrospect, the film seems overwhelmingly emotional, while viewing it there seems to be an immense restraint and subtlety.
I haven’t mentioned the plot, because the film is largely unconcerned with it. Youth consists of one moment of intimacy after another, revealing over the course of two hours a huge and sweeping story of love and beauty, inside of which the film exists only as a tiny focal point near the end of a few character’s lives. David Lang scores these moments with indelible precision, and Luca Bigazzi captures them with a patient and stunning cinematography.
Why is it called Youth? The film and its two aging leads, Frank and Mick, may have plenty to say about the nature of the titular phenomenon, but they choose to keep much of it to themselves. If age brings wisdom, it does not give it freely, and experience does not always parallel understanding. I point, rather, to a discussion Mick and his youthful writing team have multiple times throughout the film. They are trying to figure out what their screenplay’s protagonist – whose story is to be Mick’s last and most important, his “testament” – says to his young lover with his dying breath. All the film students toss out ideas: “He says ‘I love you.’ “He says, ‘Remember that time when…’ “No, he focuses on some insignificant detail…” Mick, finally, laying in a circle with the young crowd, their heads together, says, “No. He doesn’t say anything on his deathbed. She’s the one who talks.”
The film opens in select theaters on Friday, December 4, 2015.