About a year ago (I actually remember the date, 11 August 2014 – a tragic day in cinema), I saw a film called This Must Be the Place. It was a dark comedy about a rock star confronting his past and going to try and avenge the death of his father, and of course it featured music from David Byrne, the frontman of one of my favorite bands of all time. Of course, the main reason I watched This Must Be the Place is because of the director. Paolo Sorrentino may just be the greatest living Italian director, and a direct offspring of the brilliance that was Federico Fellini. Obviously, This Must Be the Place was a complete disappointment, because nothing that perfect ever works. I was hesitant to think that Mr. Sorrentino could really make an English-language film with big stars in it telling an interesting story. I honestly thought he had come to the same conclusion, because his foray into Hollywood clearly didn’t work very well at all, and maybe he just wasn’t going to fancy giving it another try and just quit…
…but Paolo Sorrentino is not a quitter, and he gave it another go with Youth, a film so touching and moving, I can barely contain myself. In no uncertain words, this film comes closest to being a masterpiece and perfect film if there ever was one. Essentially, I wasn’t prepared for the this film. I was expecting a very good, but unremarkable film. Instead I was taken by complete surprise, and while it may seem that I doubted Sorrentino, I adore him as a filmmaker, and I was just worried that his first attempt at an English film failed, so he wouldn’t attempt it again, which I am glad to say didn’t end up happening, and he learned from his mistakes and came back with a great film.
If you want to see some Hollywood veterans strutting around and being the stars of a great film, then this is the film for you. Michael Caine gets his best role in years as Fred Ballinger, the retired maestro who has grown bitter and distant in recent years, and has fallen into a sort of cynical depression where he refuses to admit that he has aged, and tries to deny it as much as he can. If there was ever a film about searching frantically for the fountain of youth, this is it – it just says it in a very subtle and subdued way to avoid cliche. Acting as a companion of sorts to Caine’s character is Harvey Keitel, who has unfortunately gone unrecognized as one of the great actors to come out of the Hollywood New Wave. Here, as Mick Boyle, Keitel gets the exact kind of performance his career needed a decade ago to propel him to getting some better roles. Unfortunately, I doubt this will put him back on the radar, but perhaps serve to remind those who have forgotten about him that he is still around, and that while he has a fantastic legacy as an actor, he is also entirely capable of giving a brilliant performance now. It was absolutely wonderful to see these two veterans in a leading role again, and hopefully more older stars come out to play in the near future, and aren’t banished to the infernal kingdom of supporting roles and stunt cameos forever.
Joining Caine and Keitel are Rachel Weisz, who gives a breathtaking performance as Caine’s conflicted and complex daughter, and Paul Dano as an arrogant movie star trying to be taken seriously as an actor, but is unable to escape his one bad choice, which was starring in a franchise blockbuster. Of course, this film also contains the cameo to end all cameos, with Jane Fonda’s performance as one of Boyle’s muses. In her singular scene, Fonda commands the screen and our attention and reminds us why she is one of the most brilliant actresses to ever live. She is a stunning actress, both in her graceful beauty and in her breathtaking poise when it comes to acting, and even within that single scene, she is amazing and does what comes naturally to her, and pulls off a performance not many could even dream of achieving. The performances are one of the strongest aspects of Youth, but there is so much more to this film.
Perhaps what I adore the most about Youth is how uncompromisingly European it is. There are entire stretches of this film that make absolutely no sense – but not in the confusing way, in the beautifully surrealist way. Sorrentino plays with the concept of absurdity and surrealism very well, and while never making the film outright insane or strange, he does create moments that obey the cardinal rule of “show, don’t tell”, and perhaps one may see the artistic flourishes of Youth as being pretentious, but when you have to consider that the current dominant model of cinema is one that obeys a set of instructions as to what the film show display, it isn’t difficult to see that Youth marches to the sound of its own drum, and that is truly brilliant. Very rarely do we get such purely artistic European films made in the English language with world-renowned stars, so I am willing to defend the brilliance of Youth to the end, purely for the fact that is is unique and very different.
Watching this film, I was overtaken with the absolute beauty of the setting. Sorrentino set this film in the Alps, which is a place that retains its beauty of being relatively untouched by mainstream cinema. The landscapes and surroundings that our characters find themselves in are gorgeous beyond compare, and while the location would be beautiful filmed on an iPhone camera, the fact that Sorrentino made the film look even more beautiful through his filmmaking speaks volumes about how great he is as a visionary director. Much credit needs to be paid to Sorrentino and his cinematographer, Luca Bigazzi, for adding some incredible moments of inspired visuals to this film. There are scenes of overwhelming extravagance, followed by moments of subtle beauty, which is a very tricky achievement considering the fact that just one slight wrong move, and your entire film could look like an exercise in grotesque excess, which this film never becomes, because Sorrentino and Bigazzi know how to create moments of great beauty, but also how to restrain the threat of just going a tad too far over the edge.
I wasn’t expecting to love Youth this much. It was an exercise to absolute brilliance. The acting was absolutely superb, the filmmaking was nearly historical in ambition, and the writing was absolutely brilliant. It is a film unlike anything I have ever seen before, and I will not deny that I will be watching it again again as soon as possible, because this is a film not only unforgettable, but rather undeniable. There is just something about the sweeping beauty and brilliance behind this film that makes me smile, and I have to say, this is by far one of the best films of the year, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it be my favorite of the entire year so far, because there is a huge chance nothing comes close to the brilliance that was Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth.