If you saw Italian director Paolo Sorrentino’s previous Cannes triumph, The Great Beauty, then you will love this shorter and more focused reflection on both youth and age.
The film is set in a Swiss spa for the rich and famous, where the two main characters, Fred and Mick (played by Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel), review their 40-year friendship through the lens of their public successes and personal failures.
Early on in the film, this quotation provides the framework for their explorations:
“Being young makes everything close. Being old makes everything far away.”
When they are not being pampered in rippling pools of warm water, with sensual body massages and steamy saunas, the men sit side by side in comfortable chairs amusing themselves with their observations about the other inhabitants of this elite enclave, both young and old. During their regular exercise walks, like many ageing men, they discuss the state of their prostates, their youthful sexual encounters and their memory loss.
When an emissary from Queen Elizabeth arrives dangling a knighthood in return for Fred to come out of retirement to conduct a special concert of his composition “A Simple Song”, he refuses for personal reasons. What these “personal reasons” are becomes a tantalising question which is not answered until the end of the film.
Fred’s daughter Lena, played by the very attractive Rachel Weisz, is keeping him company but that does not stop her paying him out for being a distant, alienated father for whom music was and is his only passion. She has also been dumped for a vacuous pop star by her husband, who is Mick’s son.
Mick is no fan of his faithless son and, as a failing film director, is much more interested in the screenplay he and a team of young people are currently working on in the Swiss retreat. Its title is Life’s Last Day; its only problem is the ending. This obvious irony is lost on the characters but not on the film’s audience. When Brenda (Jane Fonda) enters the scene as a faded, over-the-top, old-style film star realistic enough to take up an offer of a television series, she dashes Mick’s hopes for restoring his reputation.
Youth is witty and full of quirky minor characters, whose appearances add to the range of roles and provide fragments of this giant human tapestry.
So much for sketching the bare plot. Be assured, there are also plenty of surprises in store.
And then, soaring, swooping, swelling through every minute of this film is the music. In fact, if you think of the film as a symphony with its major and minor themes and chords and just let it take you on its emotional journey, you will have the key to its breadth and depth. Don’t think too much, just let the emotion carry you along from its opening scenes to the final, endless list of rolling credits.
The film is a visual feast laid out for the audience’s delight. Every shot demands your attention for its composition and its dramatic beauty.
I could go on about all the nuanced references to Thomas Mann, Anton Chekhov and Fellini, but you don’t need to recognise them to enjoy this film.
The relationship between Caine and Keitel shows two actors at their very best. Maturity and experience have a lot going for them, despite the film’s title.
Youth is a moving and tender film. It is also beautiful, extraordinary and mind-expanding. If you like films that stay with you long after you have seen them, films that make you want to discuss them endlessly with your friends, films that are what film festivals are all about, then make an effort to see this one.
Youth screened as part of the Adelaide Film Festival, which has now finished.
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