Paolo Sorrentino’s 2013 movie The Great Beauty must have brought back a few memories for members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who awarded it the Oscar for best foreign language film. Though set in modern-day Rome, it was a film that not only invoked the flamboyant ghost of the great Italian director Federico Fellini but also the heyday of European art cinema: jaded, dispassionate men and beautiful, enigmatic women in bustling, romantic cities. With its story of a once-feted writer trapped by creative block and facing the dustbin of history, it was quite an introspective statement to make for a director still in his mid-40s. But with this follow-up, Sorrentino returns with something even more melancholy.
Though it remains a European film in setting and sentiment, Youth features an eclectic cast of Brits and Americans, top-lined by Michael Caine, waiting until his early 80s to make the first and possibly only true art house movie of his career. In heavy-lidded, avuncular mode, Caine plays Fred Ballinger, a veteran conductor enjoying a break at a luxury spa with his best friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) and daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz). Ballinger is being pursued by an emissary from Buckingham Palace: the Queen would like him to come out of retirement and perform at a command royal performance one more time, but the musician refuses, citing personal reasons. From here, the film becomes a surreal and at times even psychedelic study of Ballinger’s life and world as he is confronted by his past – notably via his daughter Lena (during a striking verbal takedown in a mudwrap massage session) – and mulls over the right, wrong and missed turns in a long and eventful life.
Once again exploring the concept of an artist losing touch with his drive and goals, Sorrentino’s latest is this time more explicitly concerned with the art of film and film-making – while Ballinger relishes his release from work, his mate Mick, a Hollywood film director, is hard at it, planning his latest masterpiece, complete with a part for his former muse (an electrifying cameo by Jane Fonda). As Ballinger and Boyle reminisce, reality and fantasy begin to blur, with dream-like scenarios such as an artful sequence in which singer Paloma Faith – played rather unconvincingly, it must be said, by singer Paloma Faith – runs off with a married man.
Caine makes hay with a soulful role that brings his playful, world-weary charm to the fore, sparking quietly with Keitel, who gives generous, easy-going support. Nevertheless, the acting, though exemplary, is somewhat secondary to the film’s main sensory pleasures: Youth is really a playground for Italian maestro Sorrentino, whose ear for music is quite extraordinary – from alternative pop and rock to ethereal classical – and whose visual genius effortlessly takes us from the absurd to the profound.