Slowly unfolding into an emotional counterpoint to his previous film, The Great Beauty, Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth pits visual grandeur against the volatile uncertainties of life to create a uniquely personal experience. Playful deviations into the abstract challenge the architecture of Sorrentino’s fictionalized world, yet profound and far reaching truths manage to permeate the dense material to lay the groundwork for several impassioned moments of deeply affecting splendor. A work that seeks to engage the five senses, Youth pressures the susceptible viewer into a state of total engagement with the film and its themes — mesmerized not only by its monumental beauty, but by the hypnotic rhythms of Sorrentino’s anodyne direction.
Like the moving parts of an ornate cuckoo-clock, the denizens of a Swiss mountain retreat move along rigid pathways at preordained times — a luxury they have doubtlessly paid a great deal for, and the perfect backdrop for Sorrentino’s film about the passage of time. Friends, and victims of time, Fred (Michael Caine) and Mick (Harvey Keitel) each struggle with the concept of aging. Decades of lost and ill-spent time cloud memories and obscure their childhoods, while their regrets meld with personal triumphs to define who they have become.
Fred Ballinger’s career as a composer/conductor goes a long way to inform the tone and pace of the film, most of which plays like a piece of arranged music that is being tightly controlled by an unseen maestro (Sorrentino’s quirks and tendencies are unmistakable). Score is monumentally important to Youth‘s unusual cadence, with each simple melody or bombastic allegro working alongside its visual partner to create a lively buzz of energy. Catchy tunes from The Retrosettes Sister Band lead us into and out of scenes, while loud and thematically jarring pieces from RATATAT and Paloma Faith snap us into dreamlike set pieces. Ballinger himself is shown to be utterly engulfed by music — from the nightly concerts performed by a rotating (sometimes literally) directory of acts to the simple yet inescapable quaverings that intermittently squeak out of a young boy’s violin. Even in his quietest moments, a crinkled candy wrapper or the Swiss countryside have the melodic requirements to liberate the haunting pieces trapped in Ballinger’s head.
“Levity is an irresistible temptation…[but] levity is also a perversion.” Ballinger’s partner-in-crime, as it were, provides Youth with the vibrant levity required to enthrall viewers. A life spent inside fictional narratives (as a writer/director) has imbued Mick Boyle with an eye for emotion and a deep knowledge of human behavior. He talks circles around the more subdued Ballinger, with each word containing varying degrees of inborn subtext. An entourage of young writers bounce script ideas off of each other (vying for attention from the seasoned master), providing a droll backdrop for the larger conversations that take place between Boyle and Ballinger. The youthful exuberance of the spunky wannabes becomes the yardstick against which the “elderly” men measure their current situation and what keeps them reminded of their storied pasts. Sorrentino’s foray into levity continues with several instances of blatant ogling at Keitel and Caine’s young female co-stars — perhaps a heavy handed attempt to describe the monumental power of a beautiful woman, but my guess is that he, like Ballinger and actor Jimmy Tree (a wonderful Paul Dano), will be lambasted for this particular excursion into pleasure.
Akin to a melody that resonates in your mind in a continual loop of madness and pleasure, Youth is a not-so-easily eradicable experience. Adhering to rules that only Sorrentino himself knows, the film challenges the preconceptions of cinema and narrative to create an affecting encounter with the supernatural. Like ambrosia for the senses, Youth isn’t content with sight and sound — it reaches out to touch the audience with powers beyond our understanding.
Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinefile based out of London, England. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.