Wilful but stimulating, Paolo Sorrentino’s new film about old age contains great performances from Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel. 

A bigger splash: Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel (right) admire Mădălina Diana Ghenea

The work of the Italian director Paolo Sorrentino has aroused both praise and blame, but not always for the films that deserved them (or such is my belief). If Il Divo (2008) was a widely recognised high point, his English language debut This Must be the Place (2011) was undervalued while the Oscar winner The Great Beauty (2013) bored me stiff. Now we have Youth which appears to be a film that divides opinion and which, as with another recent release The Lobster, may perturb mainstream viewers expecting something more conventional from an English language movie with an all-star cast.

For starters, the Swiss spa hotel in which the film is set can be taken as representing the world with its guests ranging from youngsters to the elderly. But it is the latter who are central, in particular two old friends: the retired composer and conductor Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) now retired and the American filmmaker Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) still working and determined to set up the film that will restore his reputation and gain from the star presence of the actress intended to play the lead (Jane Fonda). Ballinger is troubled in the present by the Queen offering him an honour that appears contingent on his conducting one of his compositions against his wishes, but what haunts him is the past and his relations with his daughter, Lena (Rachel Weisz), and, more significantly, with his wife now in a home.

Superbly photographed in colour and ’Scope by Luca Bigazzi, Youth could have been a straightforward  portrayal of two men responding  differently to old age, but Sorrentino, writer as well as director, elects to turn it into something much more out of the ordinary and not tied down to being wholly naturalistic. Heightened philosophical talk and the symbolism of the hotel lead into dream sequences, a Felliniesque montage of actresses in Boyle’s films and (this being the most wilfully eccentric of all) Paloma Faith, the singer, playing herself but also someone who steals Lena’s husband from her. If some of this can be distracting it also adds to the sense of originality, but the film’s impact comes first and foremost from the depth and detail found in the characterisation of  both Fred and Mick and realised to perfection by Caine and Keitel. Old age can be a time of silence and regrets but, above all, the film endorses the importance of being able to feel truly: “Emotions are all we’ve got”. Nevertheless, the film also provides much comedy, not least in the sequences about filmmaking involving Mick and there’s a splendid biting cameo from Jane Fonda. I found this side of Youth far more telling than the recent Clouds of Sils Maria by Olivier Assayas. The mixture on offer can seem strange at times, but there’s much brilliance here. In passing I would mention that Sorrentino dedicates Youth to another Italian director, the late Francesco Rosi who died in 2015.




Cast: Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Paloma Faith, Ed Stoppard, Mădălina Diana Ghenea.

Dir and Screenplay (as translated by Virginia Jewiss) Paolo Sorrentino, Pro Nicola Giuliano, Francesca Cima and Carlotta Calori, Ph Luca Bigazzi, Pro Des Ludovica Ferrario, Ed Cristiano Travaglioli, Music David Lang, Costumes Carlo Poggioli.

An Indigo Film production/Medusa Film/Barbary Films/Pathé/France 2 Cinéma/Number 9 Films etc.-StudioCanal Limited.
124 mins. Italy/France/UK/Switzerland. 2015. Rel: 29 January 2016. Cert.