Youth – a movie review

Youth – A Movie Review


Howard Adelman

My eldest daughter told me that I do not write movie reviews. Rather, I write ruminations about a few of the films I see that especially intrigue me. She is absolutely correct. To prove I am not a proper movie reviewer, when we went to see Youth directed by Paolo Sorrentino last evening with a group of friends, I did not even know who had directed the movie or anything about it. I did know that Michael Caine was in it. That was all!

What is worse, when, before entering the theatre, I saw that Paolo Sorrentino was the director, I wondered who he was. And I should have known once the film began because the cinematography and structure so reminded me of another film I had seen. When I got home, I looked Sorrentino up. I realized that he had directed The Great Beauty. I also learned that I had never seen any of his other first rate Italian films: One Man Up (2001); The Consequences of Love (2004); The Family Friend (2006); Il Divo (2008); and This Must Be the Place (2011). I now have an additional list of foreign films that I must see.

In my blog in March of 2014, I reviewed his first film in English, The Great Beauty, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in the 2014 Academy Awards. I interpreted it as a remake of Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita which I had seen a half century earlier. The Great Beauty, as I described it, was packed with frenzy and inanity. Youth, which one might expect to be a frenetic film, was anything but. There is no revelry. There is absolutely no orgy of dancing. There is no pulsating beat, except, tellingly, the first opening song sung by a retro pop singer, “You’ve Got the Love.”

Sometimes I feel like throwing my hands in the air

I know I can count on you

Sometimes I feel like saying, “Lord I just don’t care.”

But you’ve got the love to see me through.


Sometimes it seems that the going is just too rough

And things go wrong no matter what I do

Now and then it seems that life is just too much

But you’ve got the love I need to see me through.


When food is gone you are my daily meal

When friends are gone I know my Saviour’s love is real

You know it’s real


You got the love [repeated 8 times]


Time after time I think, “Oh, Lord, what’s the use?”

Time after time I think it’s just no good

“Cause sooner and later in life, the things you love you lose

But you got the love to see me through


You got the love [repeated 6 times]


Sometimes I feel like throwing my hands up in the air

‘Cause I know I can count on you

Sometimes I feel like saying, “Lord, I just don’t care.”

But you’ve got the love to see me through.

I did not recall most of the lyrics except to wonder whether the film was going to be about old men with a nostalgia for a long lost youth. (I knew Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel were both a few years older than me, and, therefore, in their early eighties.) I thought I first saw Michael Caine in Alfie, but one of my friends who was with me at the movie said that The Ipcress File was first and she was correct. Michael Caine has appeared in over one hundred movies in a film career spanning sixty years and I probably saw half of them. As Michael Caine himself has cracked, “I am in so many movies that are on TV at 2:00 a.m. that people think that I am dead.”

But Alfie came first to mind when I saw the opening of Youth because I thought the film might be about an old man who was once a young hedonistic womanizer who, as an old man, wonders what it was all about. The poster promoting the film does suggest, at least in part, that the movie is about two elderly males in a hot tub watching a nude Miss Universe enter and observing what they’ve lost and, further, what they will never get again.

But, of course, the movie was not just about nostalgia for a lost youth, and certainly not about something as mundane and banal as relying on your love to be your saviour. If anything, the film is a direct challenge to the latter thesis. So why the opening song? After all, what can be more hackneyed that a love song that says that, with all the troubles and tribulations of life, the love of one’s life is one’s saviour.

We very quickly learn otherwise. For what appears to be a camera shot fixated on the singer as the audience moves around her in a circle, is soon revealed, when the camera moves back, to be a singer on a revolving stage. So what something first appears to be will certainly not be what the movie is about. More specifically, it will not be about one’s true love being the source of one’s salvation. And the film will come full circle like the rotating stage from the opening pop melody and empty pop thought to a final song that is so radically different. Though we travel somewhat in a circle, we do not end up where the film starts. Except in the most ironic manner.

The use of the camera is ironic, not only in the first scene, but throughout the film. The Buddhist monk, who appears and reappears as attempting, unsuccessfully, to levitate, is portrayed by the camera in his last appearance. The film over and over again seems to be laughing at us as we are so easily taken in by the tricks of filming and videotaping. So the movie is doubly ironic. For the meaning of the words spoken by the actors may have one meaning for us unknown to that character spouting them. However, when we first see a scene and hear the words spoken, the movie gradually reveals that we are as blind and deaf as the characters themselves in interpreting what is set down before us.

Look at another character, the different shots of a thin masseuse with braces on her teeth practicing moves that are as smooth and silky as the massages she offers to the patrons of the hotel. Watching her as she appears and reappears, we speculate about whether she is simply a star struck teenager with a fantasy of appearing on stage or an object of attention for a dirty old man. In the last short scene, the thought or thoughts we had in our heads are pricked like an inflated balloon.

Take another of the myriad of characters in the movie. In The Great Beauty, a Japanese tourist takes pictures of Rome to preserve what he sees on film, though it is clear that the only thing of Rome he actually sees is what he views through his camera. But then he suddenly drops dead, presumably overwhelmed by the beauty of Rome that he never even sees directly so anxious is he to preserve visuals for eternity. In Youth, in various scenes, we see what could be a sumo wrestler gone to seed who became enormously fat, or else an Italian mafia billionaire with a huge pot belly, or else one of those opera singers of huge proportions who has grown even larger. He is so fat and so out of breath that, like the Japanese tourist in The Great Beauty, we expect him to suddenly drop dead of a heart attack. It turns out not to be even one of the characters we thought he was. See for yourself. I promise; this will not be the only surprise that the audience will experience in watching the movie. There are many.

One of those surprises is to learn that a film about old men is also a movie really about youth. For the wisest words in the movie are spoken by a young girl about ten years old. In contrast to the expectations of an actor, Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), who believes people only see him for his role as a robot, Mr. Q, in a sci-fi flic, he is surprised that the young girls sees him as a performer who can act with skill and conviction in another role than Mr. Q. Out of the mouths of babes… One wonders whether Jimmy Tree is just another side of Michael Caine who resented, though humorously, being recognized by young people only as the butler in The Batman movie. Only whisper my name.

Thus, like The Great Beauty, Youth is also packed with a whole roster of great mini-portraits. Unlike The Great Beauty, in Youth there is no wild or uncontrolled behaviour, except in the wonderful bit part of an aging actress, Brenda Morel, played with terrific panache by Jane Fonda. Fonda, so well recognized for the preservation of her youthful beauty, plays the role of an aged actress of exquisite ugliness ravaged not only by the passage of time, but even more cruelly from a series of attempts to preserve her beauty. In the end, she is the only character in the film who loses total control in a wonderful scene shot in the first class section of a passenger jet.

Yet it is she in an earlier scene who, as a foul-mouthed fireball, finally confronts Harvey Keitel, who plays Mick Boyce, a fading director still trying to make a final movie. Fonda tells him his time has come and passed. He is well past his “Best By Due-Date.” After her direct and humiliating scathing critique of Mick, Brenda (Fonda) ends up exploding like a volcano in her final scene. In so doing, she proves her own words of so-called truth to Keitel were as false as everything else about her had become, just when we recognize the real truth of what she told Keitel  – that the future is television just as the future for the stage had once been movies. Fonda’s confrontation with Keitel filled with recrimination and regret stands in stark contrast to the loving way in which Lena (Rachel Weisz) tells her father, Michael Caine, about his past shortcomings. Lena needs the services of a sensitive mountain climber to restore her ego.

But the focus of the movie is on two pals. This, in a way, is a road movie, but the two never travel on the road together. They just see one another at a hotel spa where they both holiday once a year. Harvey Keitel as Mick Boyce, the has-been movie director, is one of the pals and the parallel to the sidekick of Marcello in The Great Beauty who is trapped in a relationship of unrequited love for an aging actress. Keitel’s character is very different. He only wants to use his aging actress to revive his own career and crawl out of the trap he is in because his creativity now fails him. The Great Beauty was clearly about emptiness and lack of substance, but only the Harvey Keitel character (Mick) exhibits that absence of a soul. For he lives in and for the sake of a fictional universe that has always been far more important to him than living in the real world. Mick is intent, with the help of a team of four writers working on the script of Life’s Last Day, to resurrect his career, but the resurrection now depends on the older actress whom he once turned into a star.

Michael Caine plays the other pal, the main character, Fred Ballinger, a retired famous conductor and composer who is the epitome of control and self-imposed serenity. He talks deliberately and slowly, is a man of few words, and they are pitched at a lower register so one thinks of Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh. Unlike his friend, Mick, he has truly retired and no longer pursues the dreams and goals of his youth. Moreover, he says that he does not miss it. What saves him from becoming a total depressive is his wry sensitivity, a quality in Michael Caine that probably fixated Paolo Sorrentino on writing the script specifically with Caine in mind. And Caine has that precise very dry sense of humour required for the role. Caine recently quipped that since, for himself, the only alternative to playing an older person is playing a dead one, he thought the former alternative was a better idea.

What is identical in the two movies is that they are both absolutely gorgeous. They are also mesmerizing, though there is virtually no plot and minimal development in Youth. It should be no surprise that the scenes were so fantastically beautiful. Both movies had the same cinematographer, Luca Bigazzi. This is what I wrote in my 2014 review: “the fabulous shots… were transfixing even when the images were of aging and world-weary sybarites. The cinematography by Luca Bigazzi is outstanding and deserved more awards and nominations than the Silver Ribbon, the Italian Golden Globe and the Chiotrudis… We end up at the end of the film as intoxicated by the visuals as the celebrants who have left the scene.”

There are no sybarites in Youth. There are no celebrants. There is no intoxication. Except for Jane Fonda’s character, and one other totally unexpected mute rutting couple who become the objects of bets between the two pals. When the couple finally speak, it is with the body language of enormous rage that appears so authentic, and then of its opposite. Otherwise, there is virtually no out of control behaviour. Everything in the movie is about control, about organized serenity. Yet we are, in my estimation, even more intoxicated by the visuals.

Intoxicated is, however, not the right term. Entranced! Enchanted! Puzzled! Intrigued!  Both movies are about males in their post-career periods, in The Great Beauty, about the “hero” who follows all the norms of what is expected of a famous libertine. Neither Michael Caine nor Harvey Keitel play the role of a cynical misanthrope and hedonist. Both are very different studies in minimalism rather than extravagance, one resigned, the other, an artist who refuses to resign. Many may claim that the chemistry between a Brooklyn boy and a Cockney make the film. I, in contrast, deplored that lack of any real chemistry or deep love between the two, and wondered whether this was not the intention on Paolo Sorrentino’s part.

Youth is a montage of scenes, but there is no helter skelter jumping about, just radical shifts as each totally unexpected scene follows after another. And there are so many. Whereas The Great Beauty had marvellous shots of statues and exquisite portraits, in Youth, the humans become the statues. The snow-capped mountain scenery of the German-Swiss Alps with its green vales replaces the decayed frozen beauty of Rome. So the flesh that is vibrant in The Great Beauty is now frozen in Youth. In this film, there are no orgies. But both films are phenomenal odes to beauty, to what one sees, and, eventually, what one hears, whether it is of cow bells or the crinkling of cellophane in Michael Caine’s fingers. Paolo Sorrentino takes us through the ripples of water, through the stillness of the mountains, and through a multitude of visuals that allow our imaginations to travel on a tour of exquisite beauty, though for 95% of the film we are in one location.

There are plenty of nudes in Youth, but instead of a bacchanalia or Dionysian saturnalia, the characters appear to be living in a luxurious retirement home rather than an opulent spa resort. But both films are odes to visual and, in the end, oral sensibility. Youth is an even greater paean to beauty than The Great Beauty, precisely because of the deliberate contrast with aged men who live with their decrepitude rather than fight against it as Marcello Mastroianni playing a gossip columnist did in La Dolce Vita. In Youth, the running shaggy dog joke repeated through much of the film is the discussion between Caine and Keitel about the amount of urine they passed that day.

While Marcello in The Great Beauty was searching for love and happiness, both Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel had given up that quest long before the beginning of the film. Caine, as Fred, is resigned to his old age. So the sense of nostalgia, of melancholia, of sadness and loss is even greater than in The Great Beauty. Michael Caine lives with the loss of his wife hanging like a black cloud over his life. How had she died? Had she died? Yes she had? No she had not. The film teases us and plays with us with every character and every relationship introduced.

The Great Beauty was full of acerbic wit. Youth is full of irony, a great deal even though the characters rarely if ever crack a smile. Even though there is not an ounce of frivolity, the film eventually does levitate the audience in a way broad farce never could. For the levitation operates through that irony. Youth is a film about old age, about old mountains against a background of beauty, including a wondrous Miss Universe that would awaken any male’s droopiest member. But the film works by way of a double irony, for the movie is really about youth, not the youth of 18-28-year-olds, not about callow youth, but the eternal youth of humans whatever their age, a youth we can recover, especially when we are not so desperate to try, the youth we can find once again even in old age. The film is also a critique of the film industry and its reverence for fiction rather than truth and beauty. Harvey Keitel as Mick plays a parallel role to the aged boastful writer in The Great Beauty and serves as a superb foil for Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine).

The comedy is all very dry – so suited to Michael Caine that you clearly understand why Paolo Sorrentino not only sought him out to play the part of a retired composer and conductor, but insisted that he had written the role specifically for Caine and that he would not make the film unless Michael Caine agreed to play the principal character. Whatever excuse there is for a sub-plot begins when an emissary of the Queen, wanting a birthday present for Prince Phillip, invites Fred Ballinger to conduct a command performance of his composition, “A Simple Song.” Caine refuses, but under pressure from the emissary who will not take no for an answer, reveals his reason, which provokes a very moving outpouring of emotion in his daughter Lena, played by Rachel Weisz.

At the end, we finally hear Simple Song No. 3 composed by David Lang and sung by Sumi Jo. That song that ends the film is so touching, and the performance of the orchestra and artists so visually entrancing, that the scene is worth the price of admission alone. The lyrics of “Simple Song No. 3” are as follows:

I feel complete

I lose all control

I lose all control

I respond

I feel chills

I break

I know all those lonely nights

I know all those lonely nights

I know everything

I lose all control

I get a chill

I know all those lonely nights

I die

I hear all that is left to be heard

I wish you would never stop

I’ve got a feeling

I live there

I live for you now I leave no sense behind

I feel complete

I’ve got a feeling

I wish you’re moving like rain

I’ll be there

I’ll be there

I lose all control

When you whisper my name

When you whisper my name

When you whisper my name, whisper my name

When you whisper my name Ooooooooh Whisper Whisper Whisper…

When you… Whisper… When you…


So a film that is so much about controlled feelings ends up being complete when control is surrendered, not when someone else who has love saves you from your own despair, but when you overcome your loss and once again live, live to whisper the name of the one you once loved.


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