Written and directed by Paolo Sorrentino, Youth is a film for the young at heart – or at least for those aspiring to that happy condition. The main characters are a couple of blokes on the wrong side of 70, and it was noticeable at my screening that most of the audience weren’t too far behind. Youth may not have been the best title. For all its undoubted charms, this isn’t a film for the 18-to-24 demographic, much targeted these days by the major studios. That makes it something of a rarity – and a pleasure.
Sorrentino is keen on the idea of oldies discovering their inner selves and coming to terms with the passing years. His best known film, The Great Beauty, winner of all sorts of awards a couple of years ago, gave us a 65-year-old who has spent most of his life revelling in the fleshpots of Rome before hearing some nasty news. Among other odd characters, the film featured a self-styled “dwarf” and a nun with two crooked teeth. Among other odd characters, Youth gives us a grossly obese sunbather, a naked Miss Universe, a faded Hollywood star (nicely played by a faded Jane Fonda), and an assortment of less than glamorous geriatrics rich enough to stay at a luxury resort in the Swiss Alps. The shadow of Fellini looms large.
Fred Ballinger (a morose and taciturn Michael Caine) and his old friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) are among the hotel’s many disconsolate residents. Fred is a retired orchestral conductor and composer, famous for a one-hit wonder called “Simple Songs”, which he no longer performs in public because, as he somewhat enigmatically explains, it was written for his wife, who can no longer sing. Not even an emissary from Queen Elizabeth herself can persuade Fred to perform the piece for Prince Philip’s birthday. Mick is a film director working on what he believes will be the crowning masterpiece of his career – his “testament”, as he calls it – though judging from the assortment of actors and screenwriters assembled for the project, one doubts that the film will be the triumph Mick is hoping for. Perhaps Sorrentino will enlighten us in a future instalment.
Youth is described in the blurbs as a “comedy-drama” – a term that always fills me with foreboding. You will have gathered that it is seriously weird – weird, but fascinating, not to say beautifully acted , and above all, quite ravishingly photographed and designed. Sorrentino’s cinematographer, Luca Bigazzi, who also shot The Great Beauty, has a wonderful eye for lush landscapes (or snowscapes) combined with a taste for bizarre, often surreal, compositions. He can find beguiling patterns and shapes wherever he points his camera – hotel corridors, symmetrical archways, rows of reclining sun-seekers.
The “comedy-drama” consists of long passages of moody introspection relieved by occasional jokes, most of which are funny. There’s a delicious scene when Fred and Mick are relaxing in the hotel pool when a naked Miss Universe slips into the water beside them. Miss Universe is played by an actress called Madalina Diana Ghenea, who appears to have been well chosen for her wordless role. And I liked the scene when one of Mick’s actors (Paul Dano), sporting a little black moustache and an all-too-realistic Hitler uniform, takes a seat in the hotel dining room and proceeds to eat in solitary silence, much to the alarm and indignation of other guests.
It is a film full of little puzzles and unanswered questions – I’m still not exactly sure what happened to Fred’s lost wife – but the total effect is strangely moving. There isn’t a great deal of cohesion and narrative drive, but Youth is never dull, and whenever things get a little vague or perplexing we are given a lovely piece of visual wizardry. The film is a beautiful affirmation of the power of pure cinema. Of course you won’t see it at multiplexes. Try the art houses instead and you should be lucky. But hurry.
Youth, rated MA, is showing in selected cinemas.
Evan Williams has reviewed films in The Australian newspaper for 33 years. He is a Life Member of the Film Critics Circle of Australia for services to film criticism and the film industry.