Sorrentino’s YOUTH is Pure Cinema at its Absolute Finest

by Frank Calvillo

Back in graduate school I remember taking a literature class called International Surrealism, which examined different works from various world authors, all of whom incorporated surrealist elements into their writings. The only assigned reading I remember clearly from that class was “The Hearing Trumpet” by famed British surrealist Leonora Carrington. The novel told the story of an elderly woman who was placed by her family in a most unconventional nursing home which existed in a kind of fairy tale realm, reminiscent of Lewis Carroll, and spoke volumes about age, perseverance, and life in general.

The enchanting novel left me pondering and reflecting on the some of life’s most commonly misunderstood and often overlooked notions concerning time, passion, and vitality in ways I simply hadn’t before and haven’t since. That is, until I saw Paolo Sorrentino’s incredibly moving and brilliant Youth.

Set in a dreamlike hotel in the Swiss Alps, Youth focuses on Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine), one of the most acclaimed composers of his generation, who shares a unique friendship with famed film director Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel). While Fred is happy living his life in retirement, Mick is furiously trying to mount a comeback to his craft. After both men’s lives are interrupted by the personal conflict of a young actor (Paul Dano), the marital crisis of Fred’s daughter (Rachel Weisz), and the appearance of Mick’s long-time muse (Jane Fonda), the two friends must reassess their passion for life and confront their own mortality.

The biggest challenge audiences have facing Youth is not getting lost in the film’s highly imaginative look. Youth takes place almost exclusively in a secluded hotel, with guests which include everyone from celebrities to retirees. There’s a definite surrealness to the world depicted within the hotel with imaginative rooms and hallways, all of which make Youth feel like the epitome of cinematic. Adding to this are the succession of night scenes taking place in the hotel’s courtyard where the eclectic group of guests gather to watch a variety of evening entertainment, which runs the gamut from singers to interpretive artists. The setting is every cinephile’s dream and affords Sorrentino the opportunity to make every frame of Youth a work of art that radiates beauty and wonder.

Just as captivating is Youth’s script, which shows Sorrentino’s immense power in storytelling, specifically the almost magical ability the director has in creating a whole story in just a single scene. A great case in point is the explosive sequence between Keitel and Fonda when the latter, a once-celebrated actress, visits the former, the director who gave her fame, to tell him she won’t be doing his comeback film. Everything needed knowing about the pair’s history and relationship is revealed in the space of that one scene through slickly inserted backstory and a great back and forth between the two actors so that in the end, it’s virtually impossible not to feel and understand both of them.

The dialogue in Youth is also the kind you can just lose yourself in, with many lines provoking great thought, reflection, and even humor. Such moments include Dano’s disenchanted actor musing, “We allowed ourselves, just once, to give into a little levity,” to which Caine replies, “Levity is an irresistible temptation.” Equally memorable is Fonda dryly proclaiming after seeing a convoluted piece of artwork, “Human beings really know how to be pathetic when they try to be, don’t they,” and Keitel telling Caine, “You say emotions are overrated. Emotions are all we’ve got.”

It comes as no surprise to report that the cast of Youth is uniformly excellent. With Fred, Caine has found what is possibly his best latter-day leading role to date, seamlessly revealing layer after layer of Fred’s character simply through a collection of soulful and pensive looks. He’s well matched alongside Keitel, who plays Mick as a sort of endless dreamer in what is one of the most sensitive roles of the actor’s career.

At first glance, Dano’s role may seem superficial, yet every one of his scenes uncovers incredible depth, while Weisz naturally excels, especially in a spa-set scene in which she flawlessly delivers a lengthy (and emotionally heavy) monologue. Finally, though she’s only on screen for a handful of moments, Fonda is mesmerizing as a fading icon with incredible self-awareness, giving what is the best work she’s done in film since her return.

The beauty of Sorrentino’s Youth is just how much it says so much about love, life, and passion, as well as how such elements alter when the present becomes the past, and how some never fade. Sorrentino illustrates this perfectly in what is arguably the best scene in the film, when Fred is visited by the Queen’s Emissary to conduct a concert of his work for her, before being knighted. Fred adamantly resists to the point where he is literally being begged by the Emissary to change his mind, to no avail. When Fred reveals the actual reason for his not being able to conduct again, it was impossible not to shed a tear due to the character’s vulnerability and scene’s undeniable power and truth.

I’m sure there will be those who will quickly label Youth an arty and pretentious film, the kind that’s fashionable to like, yet impossible to warm up to. Make no mistake, not only is Youth incredibly accessible, but it’s also immensely relatable. Some movies you anticipate and expect to be wowed and taken over by, as if the snippets of the trailer’s content makes this an absolute given. Then there are those films such as Youth, which actually find you, enrich the soul and deceptively speak to you in a way few other films ever could.

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