The following was originally published in the University Observer Vol. XXII, Issue V. It was later posted on the paper’s website.
Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Starring: Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Ed Stoppard
Release Date: In Irish cinemas January 29th.
We are all just extras. This is the message director Paolo Sorrentino hopes to convey in Youth, his second English language film after 2011’s This Must Be The Place, and his first cinematic feature to follow his 2013 Oscar-winning The Great Beauty. It acts as a poignant reflection upon life, death, and everything in between.
Set against the backdrop of a luxurious resort in the Swiss Alps, Youth follows Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine), a retired classical music composer, and Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), a filmmaker in the process of writing his latest feature titled Life’s Last Day. The pair are close friends who also happen to be connected by their respective offspring: Fred’s daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz) is married to Mick’s son Julian (Ed Stoppard). Their relationship is made complicated when Julian leaves Lena for pop star Paloma Faith, who plays herself in an awkward and clunky cameo. This marital breakdown drives the narrative forward, but narrative and plot are merely secondary in a film preoccupied with symbolism.
Fred and Mick spend the majority of their vacation at the resort discussing the past and the future. Now that they have reached old age their memories have started to fade, and they see little hope in coming times. Their anguish over growing old acts as a counterpoint to the vibrancy of the Alpine setting, which is visually breathtaking – cinematographer Luca Bigazzi is to be commended. The aging pair encounter various other characters at the resort, such as a retired Maradona (who plays himself), disillusioned actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), and a Miss Universe (Madalina Diana Ghenea), all of whom reflect on their lives and careers. They offer levity in a film steeped with heavy-handed visual metaphors, which make the film feel rather bloated at times. Also of note is how wonderful sequences, like one in particular in which Fred flashes back to all the starlets he has worked with over the years, are let down by others, such as when we see Michael Caine conducting a field of cows into musical symphony.
In a Nutshell: Youth is a sometimes-poignant, but often self-indulgent reflection on life, death, and aging; overbearing symbolism does not always work in its favour. It is worth watching for its stunning photography and emotional soundtrack.