Written and directed by Paolo Sorrentino (2015)
What would you say if a friend asked if Paolo Sorrentino’s new movie Youth was worth seeing? “Of course, well worth seeing if just for Michael Caine’s acting—his face and delivery a perfected art.” The movie is about him, composer, maestro Fred Ballinger, his life and his state of being in old age; the characters that link to him—film director Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), Lena (Fred’s daughter, Rachel Weisz), and Jimmy Tree (an American actor played by Paul Dano)—have universal stories that serve as subplot threads. The array of peripheral characters who also inhabit the Alpine Spa provide interest, humor, and curiosity, not unlike the circus flavor of Fellini’s casts, and yet under this artist’s eye, the palette is slower, quieter, art-museum rich, with longer focus on oddities, eccentricities, and composed beauty, despite the clicking pace of scenes. Sometimes the lines sound like lines, forced, not natural, but with the rich and splendid visual accompaniments—our location steeped in sensual ambiances we come to know like the spa-dwellers themselves—the occasionally contrived lines slip by unnoticed or forgiven. It may also be that such banal utterances are intended humorously, satirically.
The script is a masterpiece that allows the visual components—the spa’s pools, steam and massage rooms, gracious lawns, alpine walks amid waist-high wildflowers, tantalizing nightlife, and every other luxurious amenity or stunning landscape imaginable—to come to life as if the viewer was right there as a participant in the Elysian world managed by longevity experts. Of course it’s not really paradise, since the inhabitants bring all their worldly and human troubles to the place and attempt to work them out in order to achieve what a film must achieve in two hours: resolution.
So, you can come to this film for Michael Caine’s phenomenal achievement or to experience how an original and extraordinarily tight script forms the basis of an artist’s film. But there is more to recognize in Youth, which is composition, the singular item that creates art, that sets art apart from lesser works. Composition—how it all fits together seamlessly and with such power that an audience stops and stares, goes through a response process—is what distinguishes art, from paintings and sculpture, to music and film, to literature and architecture. That arresting, mesmerizing impact, which moves a person’s spirit, soul, and emotions, whether because of tragedy, pathos, or the rendering of sheer earthly essence (art for art's sake), is art. And so, we can also come to Sorrentino’s latest movie to experience his art. While the script plays along—with octogenarian Fred moving from apathy following his wife’s absence to living in the world again (his resolution)—we are treated to another artist-composer’s imagination, vision, and taste through multitudinous canvases, one of the best toward the end of the movie, when 80-year-old Mick (Keitel) faces the end of his directing genius, the end of his notable career, when his young actors leave the spa on a train, their work unfinished, the script without an ending. But that’s the true ending: Mick facing the loss of his future; the future being over for him. He turns to the green alpine hillside next to the station and one by one the actresses in his past movies appear, dotting the landscape and saying fragments of their lines—actresses from every movie genre and in every conceivable costume. He is their conductor, they are his orchestra (a parallel to Fred the composer and conductor of Simple Songs from his own past, and a pasture of cows in the present time). But all is now in the past for Mick; the future doesn’t exist for him anymore, now that the actors have left, the script has no ending but this, and his leading lady Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda) has told him what trash he now produces. As he witnesses all the actresses on the hillside before him—the culmination, or last review, of his life—a final face comes before him, very close to his own face, and bears an expression of utmost hurt, hurt we interpret as caused by Mick. Probably it is the face of his first love, his first wife. There is a pervasive quality to the movie that suggests those first bonding loves that produce a family endure as the deepest, most meaningful relationships, even if the marriages fall apart. Again, youth and youthful dreams and ambitions made those bonds and family. Old age can't replicate it; it only happens in youth.
The film’s composition of scenes, its museum canvases, go on and on and delight the mind and senses. This is a sensory tour, art for art’s sake, but always with underlying meanings because of the script’s various threads, if the viewer can follow the script, which is not really possible in one screening as so many perfectly placed details fly by too fast. Then, there are features in the movie that many audiences won’t get, though this doesn’t detract from the overall power of Youth. For instance, unless we look for an answer after seeing the movie, we don’t know that one of the characters is the real-life soccer hero Diego Maradona, an obese, ailing occupant of the imaginary spa, alive only because of his accompanying oxygen machine. Characters in the film see Maradona and marvel that he’s at the spa with them; kids outside the chain-link fence clamor for his autograph. We know he must be somebody, hideous as he is with his fleshy back covered in a Che Guevara tattoo, but the only clue we’re given is when he flashes back to his great days on the green playing field with his team and spectators cheering for him. Still, that doesn’t enlighten most viewers to who he is, nor does Jimmy’s line: “The whole world knows you’re left-handed.” Why is Maradona in the movie as one of the spa’s odd characters? Because art comes from the individual’s vast store of experiences—random, pulled from here and there without premeditation. These strands, images and snippets of dialogue, feed through the unconscious mind and the imagination to emerge in a composition, good or bad. For the ordinary viewer of Youth, Maradona is just another weird, physically ugly person at the spa that we come to like as a certain suffering mascot. We cannot know without reading afterwards that Sorrentino holds him dear as the symbol for saving his own life. When he was 17, his parents died in a gas-leak accident during a weekend away, and Sorrentino would have been with them except that he insisted on staying in Naples to watch Maradona play.
While some of the spa characters carry no import besides their universal human eccentricity (Felliniesque), others are symbols, such as the young masseuse with a long Chinese braid coming from the top of her head and braces on her pubescent teeth. We see her several times dancing in her room to a video, her arms weaving like a multi-armed Hindu deity. She is Youth, the goddess of Youth, the statue of Youth, the way we have statues of Justice and Liberty. When Fred—the protagonist—liberates himself from apathy and conducts his Simple Songs for the queen and Prince Philip, his mind fleetingly goes to the girl, the symbol of youth, and also to Mick, the symbol of old age and death. The girl and Mick are at each end of life’s pole, as Fred conducts the music that had the most meaning to him in his life, made in youth (with the future ahead) and conducted in old age (with the past behind).
The script is tight because right from the beginning all the little clues are there, foreshadowings, such as Fred reading the newspaper on the spa lawn and noting a headline about Miss Universe, who will appear later. We regularly hear a few bars of music played by a violin in one of the spa bedrooms, which later turns out to be Fred’s “Simple Song #3.” The American actor Jimmy is studying everyone at the spa as he works out “developing his next role” in a film, which towards the end turns out to be a ghastly Hitler even Jimmy can't tolerate. Mick from the beginning refers to Brenda Morel and how she’ll be fabulous in his new movie, paving the way for Brenda and Mick's own demise. Lena tells Fred, her father, that he should take flowers to Mummy in Venice—where Fred conducted for the last 20 years of his career. A blissful Buddhist monk makes a few appearances and we hear joking about his ability to levitate, which plays out later. A sad, plain prostitute comes to the spa with her mother from the beginning and plays a role at the end with hapless, hopeless Mick—a walk holding hands. We find out later from the spa’s psychiatrist that Mick’s lifelong idolized woman (and also Fred’s)—Gilda Black—never slept with him. The most he achieved with her was a walk holding hands. It must have been a more sublime moment in youth than the act of sex for Mick to reenact it in his last moments.
The movie’s tiny, infinitesimal details fly by but are there and feeding the overall richness of the story arc. When Fred conducts his Simple Songs at the end of the movie—looking like a resolute man, one who is alive again—there are sounds in the music that refer back to earlier scenes when he sat on the alpine hillside conducting cows wearing bells, with other wildlife “instruments” joining in (woodpeckers especially). Sounds (water) and music are naturally vital components of this movie as all senses are employed richly and deeply in Sorrentino’s opus—visual, sensual, aural—perhaps taste is omitted. We can feel and smell the heavenly alpine meadows in full wildflower and lupine bloom, or the steep, crystal clear mountains with remnants of snow—we breathe that healthful air. We hear often that Mick’s final masterpiece is titled Life’s Last Day. Then we see him in the field facing all his past actresses and understand that this moment is his final work, and its Last Day title must have been an uncanny premonition.
Father and daughter, Fred and Lena, have two nightmares. We see scintillating S. Marco Square in Venice at nighttime—perhaps the most evocative, romantic, and mysterious setting anywhere in the world. Then we see the famous “acqua alta” shimmering over the piazza like a lake. Fred crosses the water on a wooden walkway. He passes Miss Universe, who will appear later in the movie—does anyone notice her face and recall it later, when she arrives at the spa? No, it’s another one of those marvelous details in the script that elude the viewer and for some audiences make the film a "series of vignettes" rather than the brilliant continuum it is. Suddenly the acqua alta rises, slowly at first, bubbly, then with all-consuming menace, and Fred, up to his neck cries out, “Melanie!” and wakes. The viewer misses yet another lovely detail—that Fred called out for Melanie. We just hear him cry out as he wakes in bed, the cut moves so fast. Fred’s journey in the movie is about processing his complicated marriage to Melanie (a universal) and his loss of her in his current life of apathy, his old age.
Lena’s sexy husband Julian (Ed Stoppard) leaves her for the pop singer Paloma Faith, because Paloma’s “really good in bed.” Lena dreams of Julian and Paloma’s wild, combustible lovemaking in a sports car recklessly swerving along a treacherous cliffside road, until she wakes in a terrified sweat to be comforted by her father in the next bed. The father-daughter thread in the story also finds resolution, showing that Fred understands Lena by DNA osmosis and that Lena can love more than resent Fred. Parent relationships, all relationships for that matter, find a moment to be pondered in the movie through various characters.
Any art that goes deep enough to be art can’t avoid sentimentality, but sentimentality comes in effective or embarrassing forms, and in Youth, it succeeds, although toward the end of the film after Jimmy says he can’t play Hitler, the music comes on with borderline sentimentality and jars the discerning viewer. As in all of Sorrentino’s movies, music plays a dynamic role.
I missed things—what did the psychiatrist say to Fred about Mick and “youth” in their last scene together. The lines were obscured, muffled, and since they involved the word “youth,” I felt deprived of a possibly important line. On the other hand, such pronouncements and occasional philosophical exchanges between characters (on levity, for instance) didn’t add anything to the picture’s impact. Another question remained for me: Who was the ambiguous naked man in an early scene when the young prostitute leaves his room? Later, when Mick has two encounters with the prostitute, I wanted to know if that naked man was supposed to be Mick or a random spa dweller.
Do we need spas? The patrons at this spa are unsmiling and when recuperating in their heated pools or saunas, a melancholy surrounds them. At the nighttime entertainment, only the young dance and smile. The elderly sit in chairs surrounding the stage watching, remembering. We are reminded how youth begins with laughter, ambition, risks, and as life moves on and the future diminishes and the past enlarges, melancholy seeps in, lips turn flat or downward. We’re treated to examples of this dichotomy throughout the film. Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda) gives a fabulous performance, her youthful, sex-symbol past behind her with only her gharish vulgarity remaining. Maradona nearly chokes to death demonstrating his famed coordination when he kicks a tennis ball high in the air repeatedly without letting it drop to the ground, and one time bouncing it off the enormous hard drum of his stomach. And in one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Fred and Mick lounge listlessly in the pool and then perk up, at least with their faces, as Miss Universe slowly glides into the water, her bronzed and sculpted body, her perfect breasts, like a visual miracle. Youth and age, bodies and age, sex and age, careers and age, future versus death, all of this conundrum for the human psyche to ponder fruitlessly saturates the film and gives it its title. But why not Elderly? Because the great human shine is lost in those years, and youth is what human life is about—the creativity and beauty and inspiration in youth, and most important, the love.
Sorrentino’s art is his own and that’s what makes Youth so satisfying—original art. Even though it’s best not to try to label his art but simply enjoy it, marvel at it, it is his personal avant garde, or theater of the absurd, perhaps more than any other element in the total make-up of his conception, that stands out for the pleasure it delivers. Whether in the costumes chosen for a scene—Fred and Mick riding the cable car to the mountain lodge in ridiculous, satirical attire—or caricatures like the mute aging couple in the dining room who finally use their throats in wild lovemaking against a forest tree, or the Buddhist monk who levitates to omniscient heights backed by triumphal music, or even brief, outlandish exchanges between characters—the film moves along its traditional story arc punctuated by Sorrentino’s brand of the absurd—which encompasses a natural well-spring museum beauty.
Relatedly, the heritage of Italian art permeates Sorrentino's movies. His sets and scenes are the 21st century’s expression of a long tradition that no other nationality has produced in the same rich, colorful, sumptuous, masterful, and prolific vein. From interiors to faces, Italian art has a fresh and inspiring interpretation. Sorrentino’s film work is operatic, literary, and flows from a painter’s palette.