Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty, Il Divo) doesn’t so much tell stories as paint pictures. I wouldn’t know how to outline the narrative of his latest film, Youth; all I can say is that it conjures up an atmosphere that is both inviting and intriguing. It also gives one of my favorite actors, Michael Caine, a rich leading role.
The setting is a luxury spa in Switzerland, where orchestra conductor Caine has resided since the death of his beloved wife. He spends most of his time sharing memories and observations with his longtime friend, movie director Harvey Keitel, who is working on a new screenplay with a gaggle of younger writers. He’s also joined by his daughter (Rachel Weisz), who serves as his assistant and harbors deep resentment toward him for his neglect of her and her mother during his busy career. She is going through an emotional crisis of her own, as her husband (Keitel’s son) has left her for another woman.
Caine is retired, but as he philosophizes with his old friend, it becomes clear that he feels disconnected from his former life. An emissary from the Queen comes to notify him of his impending knighthood and to convey a request from Her Majesty that he perform his most famous composition. He refuses, citing personal reasons and refusing to elaborate.
The idyllic spa creates a hermetic environment removed from the real world, and serves as a stage for observing the human condition with all its idiosyncrasies. A young actor (Paul Dano) keeps a keen eye on everything around him as he prepares for his next role, while an obese former football star is reduced to playing with a tennis ball all by himself.
Youth may be difficult to describe, but it’s easy to watch, as we absorb the frailties, follies and delusions of these disparate characters. (Jane Fonda contributes a brief but searing performance as an aging actress around whom Keitel has fashioned his latest script.) As in The Great Beauty, one is frequently reminded of Fellini who, like Sorrentino, reveled in watching the passing parade. David Lang’s score, along with carefully chosen source music, enhances the mood that Sorrentino develops. Cinematographer Luca Bigazzi makes the most of the beautiful setting, which dwarfs the lonely figures who walk around the grounds contemplating their past and searching for meaning in their future.
It’s always a pleasure to watch Caine at work, and he proves to be as deft at underplaying as he is in more forceful characterizations; he and Keitel mesh perfectly. Youth may seem an ironic title for this meditative piece, but at the end of the picture it makes perfect sense: life is over only when you stop caring.