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April 17, 2016

Youth (2015)
Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Actors: Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Paul Dano

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Synopsis: Old friends, Fred (Michael Caine) and Mick (Harvey Keitel), are holed up in a plush Swiss spa, and over the course of a number of days, they ruminate on their personal affairs, professional careers, and indeed their own mortality…

Review: Paolo Sorrentino’s latest wry ode to ageing and the vicissitudes of the flesh is far too textured to be straightforwardly conceited even though its scenario of two wealthy, ageing patriarchs musing on their mortality in a Swiss spa would seem to invite readings of cheap pathos and a certain remoteness considering the exclusiveness of the characters and setting. Sorrentino’s genius is that, as in most of his other works, he takes potentially unsympathetic characters and manages to mainline into their humanity. Take, for example, this film’s rogue’s gallery of players: a self-centred, wilfully apathetic, retired composer; a wired, egotistical, veteran film director; a sullen and pretentious young movie star; and the rather harsh and hysterical daughter of the composer. As individuals in their own right, they possess multiple flaws and could almost be considered unlikeable, but Sorrentino’s floating gaze transcends those petty politics for much deeper, almost epiphanic readings of the characters’ respective journeys. Harvey Keitel’s director, Mick, reaches a poignant admission of the essential futility of his endless professional strivings in a pained monologue to his young acolytes at a train station; Paul Dano’s dissolute actor has a lovely monologue about a revelation he’s had over his father and his career; Rachel Weisz’s traumatised daughter finds unlikely succour in the guise of an eccentric climber; and Michael Caine’s composer, the film’s key conduit, has two moments of epiphany – one, where he finally defends the honour of his absent wife, and two, in the closing scene when he re-immerses himself in his composing after spending most of the film avowedly on the sidelines.

It’s Sorrentino’s unique style and narration that truly elevates the material. He is always thinking his stories through visually, never using a conventional dramaturgical conceit where something cinematic (a cut, a fade, a piece of music) will do, and he never telegraphs his drama. A key character has died by the end of the film, and although we haven’t seen it nor has it been directly commented on, we just know through the imagery of that character’s last scene plus Sorrentino’s subtle crescendo of rhetoric that, just as Fred has had an unlikely bill of health after seemingly resigning himself to his mortality throughout the film, so his friend and counterpart who had spent most of the film railing against his infirmity has not been so lucky. (April 2016)

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