Paolo Sorrentino’s latest film, Youth, is a cinematic masterpiece that will move you to tears.
Michael Caine leads this meditation on art and aging through his character Fred Ballinger, a retired composer and conductor who refuses to play his famous ‘Simple Songs’ for anybody—not even the Queen. The film takes place on one of the most breathtaking sets ever to grace a screen, a luxury resort/spa in the Swiss Alps. There’s plenty to look at in this film, from the sprawling grounds of the sanitarium, to the picturesque mountains beyond, to the equally voluminous peaks of actress Madalina Diana Ghenea, who plays a completely naked Miss Universe. That’s the perk of setting a movie in a foreign spa; you don’t need to pay a costume designer. Birthday suits are free.
The whole film is set around Caine vacationing with his longtime best friend, Mick, (played by Harvey Keitel). Mick is working on his next screenplay, and he’s stuck. He’s brought along a crew of young, eager, and stereotypically precocious writers to help him finish what he hopes to be his most inspiring film yet. Cue some pretty hilarious scenes of late-night screenplay writing sessions in Mick’s hotel room, each mid-twenty-something suggesting the final deathbed words of the would-be film’s protagonist.
Somehow, this is the first film I have ever seen with Rachel Weisz in it, and my god is she beautiful. I actually found myself thinking, “No wonder James Bond married her”, which is so, so embarrassing to admit for a plethora of reasons. 1) James Bond isn’t a real person, 2) Daniel Craig is just an actor pretending to be a person who isn’t real, and 3) I’ve never even seen a James Bond film, so what am I even talking about?
Cinematic brilliance aside (prepare to scrape your jaw off the ground after the late night pool reflection scene featuring Caine and Miss Universe walking on water), the film’s biggest success is its poetic and peculiar exploration of growing old, processing regret, and heaviest of all, pining for one’s youth. There is a conversation between Caine and Keitel where Caine remarks that he has done so many things for his daughter, Leda (played by James Bond’s wife) since she was born, both small and big, and she will remember none of them. He realizes this because he remembers little of his own youth. He is shaken by this realization, asking what the point of those acts of kindness are if they are not to be remembered. I’m doing this conversation a massive disservice by even trying to convey it, because here it seems flat and banal, but when I was sitting in the theatre watching it, I almost dropped my choc top it was so profound.
Sure, there are some self-indulgent moments in the film, and at times it feels like Sorrentino is trying to outdo every ‘art-house’ film that’s ever been made, but at the core of Youth is something so poignant it stays with you long after the credits role—youth is fleeting, but you will spend the rest of your life chasing after it.