The second English-language film from Italian director Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty, This Must Be the Place) is set in the Swiss Alps at an exclusive sanatorium-cum-holiday resort for the rich and famous. With its perfectly composed, atmospheric nighttime tableaus populated by well dressed, beautiful and eccentric characters, Youth instantly recalls Federico Fellini’s most celebrated (and self-indulgent) masterwork, 8½.
In an old man’s paradise
The comparison isn’t merely aesthetic either. Sharing the task of filling Marcello Mastrianni’s existentially troubled shoes are Michael Caine, playing a British composer who refuses to break his retirement (despite a request from HRH The Queen), and his close friend, an American film director (Keitel) who has harnessed the creative skills of several students as writing partners, but is still unable to find an ending for his latest script.
There are other guests staying at the resort too, who enter and leave the frame accordingly: Rachel Weisz is the daughter of Caine’s character and gives voice to his tormented conscience; the current Miss Universe (Madalina Ghenea) immediately disproves the beauty pageant stereotype by showing she’s more than the sum of her considerable parts (only to later flaunt said parts for everyone else’s viewing pleasure); Jimmy Tree (Dano), an accomplished actor whose major life-beef is the fact that, despite an impressive CV, he’s best known for his role as Mister Q, a robot in a mediocre sci-fi; an obesely overweight footballing legend – and so on.
Sorrentino allocates questionable time for the development of many of these peripheral characters, eliciting our sympathies for their first world woes only occasionally.
Young man’s energy
Essentially though, this is Caine and Keitel’s film. Making a surprisingly affable pair, they give by far the most committed performances of this ensemble cast, many of whom are half their age. A genuine chemistry allows their friendship to organically shape the emotional core from which all other narrative strands emanate.
They frequently lament the irregularity of their bathroom visits and reminisce about bygone girlfriends. In one scene, Keitel takes his posse of young writers out to ski (or hike?), stopping to use a coin-operated telescope. He cites the device’s proper use as like the experience of being young – everything is tangible and appears close to hand.
He then turns the device around to look down the wrong end, using the effect of exaggerated distance as a metaphor for growing old – when everything that was once close suddenly seems so far away. Other attempts at philosophising about ageing, though, are less successful.
Recalling the Exotic Marigold
this is a sweet-natured, albeit frequently clumsy Waiting for Godot, deliberately lensed so as to evoke the spirit of Fellini. Well intentioned, Sorrentino is wrong-footed by his own cinematic contrivances and some pat-sentimentalism – so much so that Youth recalls The Exotic Marigold Hotel as much as it does 8½, which is something that would surely disturb the director.
Attempts at cramming a sumptuous visual beauty into every frame sees Sorrentino’s hit-rate higher than his misses – particularly a sequence that involves the flooding of Piazza San Marco in Venice – but too often what was intended as stately elegance comes off as empty artifice and any initial charm is rendered tiresome two-thirds in.