Cast: Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Jane Fonda
Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Writer: Paolo Sorrentino
I was first introduced to Paolo Sorrentino when I saw his Oscar winning film The Great Beauty back in 2013, a marvellously contemplative film that was partly about the past as a reflection. By having his main character reflect on a certain memory from his youth, Sorrentino provided an exquisite composition of romanticism, nostalgia, desire and regret. These are themes that are featured prominently in Youth, which is essentially a film about how life is lived. It is about the struggles of aging, the past as a memory, the future as an ideal, and the finality of death. The film reflects on these themes through art, providing a musician and a film director as its two central characters. Both are men who have dedicated their lives to art in their attempts to find meaning in life. In essence Youth is a film about what could’ve been, what might be, and what is.
Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) is a retired composer and conductor on holiday in the Swiss Alps. With him is his best friend of many years, the film director Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) who is currently working on the screenplay of what he believes will be his magnum opus. Together they spend their days talking about the lives they’ve lived and contemplating the lives of those around them. Amongst them are Fred’s daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz) and the actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano). Fred is approached by an emissary for Queen Elizabeth II to conduct his ‘Simple Songs’, his most famous compositions, in a royal performance. Fred refuses without giving a reason why. Over the course of this holiday Fred reflects on his life and all of the joys and sorrows he has known and caused, wondering if there is anything left for him to live on for.
Youth is the kind of film where you’re either going to be completely absorbed or utterly bored. The narrative is not so much driven by story as it is by thoughts. It takes a philosophical approach to its themes with the melancholy musings of its two central characters coupled with an air of surrealism. Just like in The Great Beauty Sorrentino continues to be influenced by Fellini with his dream-like sequences, contemplative tone, and portrayals of beauty. As well as the representation of visual beauty provided by the Miss Universe character, Youth conveys emotional beauty through art. The beauty of music, in Fred’s eyes, is that it is universal; it is something that can be understood by everyone regardless of age, language or culture. There is a particularly moving scene where he sits in a field conducting a herd of cows, basking in the music of the mundane and ordinary. Mick’s art meanwhile is film and here he is struggling with the ending of his screenplay which never seems quite profound enough. What seems to separate these two art forms, in this particular instance at least, is that film requires meaning whereas music is pure in its form. Perhaps that is why Fred seems so unsentimental and withdrawn, because he’s not trying to find any meaning in his life.
The search for meaning is something that occupies the thoughts of every character apart from Fred. Mick’s job is to create meaning through stories and it is his hope that this film will allow him to understand the story of his own life. Lena seeks to understand her father and why it is that he chose to live his life as a musician rather than as a husband or a father. Jimmy meanwhile is wandering about aimlessly through life and is unsure which way he should go. Even as they find the answers that they all seek, they also find that the quest for meaning is a never-ending one. Even Fred is undergoing such a quest, although he doesn’t realise it. Caine provides a nuanced performance as this character as he lives his life of solitude, finding mild amusement in the lives of those around him and occasionally pondering his own life. What he eventually finds is that there is a part of his life that he’s been hiding from which he must finally confront. The scene in which he reveals the real reason for his refusal to perform the concert and makes this realisation is a moving one made all the better by Caine’s astounding performance.
There is a real beauty to Youth in all of its deep contemplation, quiet tragedy and melancholy romance. In their searches for meaning the characters find significance in the everyday and beauty in the unexpected. They discover truths about themselves both joyous and painful. By the end of the film each character’s perception of life has been altered in a fundamental way. The universal search for meaning could be construed as the search for happiness and, while not every character finds it, they all more or less achieve some form of satisfaction (or maybe acceptance would be a better word) for better or for ill. The climax of this film consists of a resoundingly moving scene that drives home the emotional profundity of art. Youth is a thoughtful, poetic and beautiful film that offers a meaningful meditation on life and art.