Paolo Sorrentino’s latest slice of self-involved sponge cake has much in common with the director’s previous film, the opulently iced but ultimately flavourless Great Beauty. But while that was a tale of existential male crises set against the lavish magnificence of Rome, this bittersweet counterpart takes place against the awe-inspiring backdrop of the Swiss Alps, and is as refreshingly enjoyable as a deep breath of fresh mountain air.
The title, of course, is a paradox. The focus is on two old friends, Fred and Mick (Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel), who are vacationing in a luxury spa at the foot of the Alps. Fred, a composer and conductor, is now retired. Mick, a film director, is still working. During the days, the pair looks with curiosity at the confused love lives of their children, and the other hotel guests. Whilst at night, Mick scrambles to finish the screenplay for his final masterpiece. Fred, however, has no intention of resuming his musical career, despite the sudden insistence of a certain British monarch.
It’s a wallowing, but worthwhile odyssey of growing old, which neatly juxtaposes personal trauma against a setting that’s blissfully tranquil and richly vibrant. While The Great Beauty had the trite appearance of a filmmaker trying to replicate the work of Fellini, Youth once more shows Sorrentino developing his own distinctive signature. Visually it’s beguiling, the landscapes beautifully lensed by DP Luca Bigazzi, and it’s matched by the film’s enticing excavation of the human psyche and shrewd streak of humour.Enhancing the allure are the strong performances of the ensemble. Michael Caine flowers in the role of Fred, a subtly sullen performance that’s rich with sorrow, while Harvey Keitel is an effective second fiddle, although Mick does smack as too much of a similarity to Toni Servillo’s Jep Gambardella. The star, however, is Rachel Weisz who, as Fred’s heartbroken daughter, adds much-needed layers of raw, emotional complexity, as she glides through the hotel in a stupor of sadness.
Of course, this being Sorrentino, Youth is buoyed with overwrought psychology, characters coasting through sequences with their heads apparently in the clouds, delivering such strained sentences as “we are all extras, all we have is emotions”. There’s also plenty of self-indulgent naval-gazing, which here comes complete with a number of jarring cameos – the most horribly heavy-handed being Paloma Faith, playing herself. For all this dawdling density though, Youth does remain delightfully droll and dramatic to the end.