“Youth” the Italian Paolo Sorrentino film is not for everyone.
If one likes philosophy and art and the ruminations of two eighty-year-old friends meeting the finality of life then block out two and a half hours to enjoy their findings.
As prep, one might begin with Novalis,the German Romantic philosopher.Georg Phillipp Friedrich Von Hardenberg (1772-1801),his given name, is mentioned in the film. He believed that “whoever knows what philosophizing is, also knows what life is”. Art is the privileged medium through which self-reflection or Bildung is achieved.
In “Youth”, sixty years of friendship encase Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) and Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel). Fred is an accomplished symphonic conductor and Mick is a film director. Fred’s daughter Leda (Rachael Weisz) is married to Julian, Mick’s son. This does not seem to complicate their friendship even though Julian is leaving Leda for pop singer Paloma Faith. At the center of their art is the privileged locale where they have been vacationing with other celebrities for years. The Swiss spa gives the camera plenty of opportunities to film the naked body in all its machinations. And we are reminded if we needed to be that men never outgrow the desire to ogle and sigh at what they may have missed. An ongoing joke always seems to swim to the surface. Fred wishes to know if Mick slept with Gilda Black, a girl they were both in love with. Mick who has been evasive for years sadly states ” the real tragedy is that I can’t even remember.”
The memories, desires, and regrets of these terry-robed bodies are ensconced in music of all kinds: off-key pop, operatic arias and Eastern guitar included. Mick ‘s script titled “Life’s Last Day” somehow meshes with their talk of prostrate problems, urine volumes and Miss Universe coming for a spa stay. Mick boasts that he knows everything there is to know about love. Fred tips his cup and says ” You and I have the same problem. We allowed ourselves to give in to a moment of levity. Levity is a perversion.” Caine’s sad eyes hold a secret amid the towel origami, the massages, the steam room and the sauna. His wife, his soprano muse, is senile and being housed in Venice. When he does decide to bring her flowers and visit after ten years, we are aghast at the contorted and vacant face. The camera lingers long enough to be ghoulish.
Two of “Youth”‘s best sequences have both orchestra conductor and film director alone in nature. Michael Caine directing from a stump and flicking his wrist to modulate cow moos, cow bells and birds flapping in flight is magical. Music and silence soar. When Fred’s daughter accuses him of giving everything to his music, we understand why and downplay the resentment. Like the stream of men and women who loved him and forgave him, we do, too.
Mick’s nature scene has us in a field off the roadside. He is amazed to see all of his leading ladies in costume reciting his memorable lines. He spins like Julie Andrew’s Maria! We are entranced,too.
An allegory on aging “Youth” could be. Ballinger’s “you eliminate one person and the whole world changes” could be an ironic comment to Queen Elizabeth demanding him to play at Prince Phillip’s birthday celebration. His personal wish is to never play his “Simple Songs” without his “not here” wife. He reneges in the end to the emissary’s persistence, and we have a glorious ending where symphonic sound engages all our own emotions on time and its passing changes.
A literature colleague and neighbor who sees lots of film,
told me not to miss this film. There certainly is a lot to think about beyond the empty rocking chairs. I have not even mentioned Paul Dano or Jane Fonda (whose part I did not like). Did she commit suicide on the plane? There was blood. And Dano’s addition of artistic souls connecting and being misunderstood was like the autograph grabbers-an injection for the apathetic. Crowds can be demanding, but they are also laudatory. When Fred says “music is all I understand, we don’t believe him.” When he says “I composed it while I still loved”, we do.
There are at least six times my seat mates and I thought the movie was ending. The monk in levitation, finally, was one. Images are touched longingly by the camera. We think there is nothing more to see; and then, like life, we want more. There are lots of starts and stops. The symbolic periscope tells us that “everything seems close when we are young, like the future. And everything seems faraway for the old, like the past.” Whether we are kicking a tennis ball into the clouds or rock climbing like Luka the Mountaineer,or finding ourselves amongst cuckoo clocks or Queen Anne’s lace, we are all going home. Stay for the credits and enjoy a litany of emotions. Decide on picking up “the scent of freedom” or believing “that we are all just extra platitudes”. Sorrentino gives as a jumble of homage and jest.