“Let no one be slow to seek wisdom when he is young, nor weary of the search for it when he has grown old. For, no age is too early or too late for the health of the soul.” — Epicurus
Filled with dream and fantasy sequences in the tradition of the great Italian director Federico Fellini, Paolo Sorrentino’s (“The Great Beauty”) film Youth is a poignant meditation on youth and aging, loss and regret, love and loneliness, a gorgeous film that could easily be called “The Great Beauty, Part 2.” Featuring seventy-something actors Michael Caine (“Kingsman: The Secret Service”) and Harvey Keitel (“The Grand Budapest Hotel”) in their best performances in many years, the film takes place in an upscale spa in the Swiss Alps where two old friends reflect on their life and loves. Caine is Fred Ballinger, a retired composer and conductor who, by his own admission, is very apathetic and seems to have lost his zest for life.
When asked by a representative of Queen Elizabeth (Alex Macqueen, “Cinderella”) to conduct his work “Simple Songs” before the Queen, he adamantly refuses but refuses to say why, other than for “personal reasons.” His friend Mick Boyle (Keitel) is a film director traveling with a group of actors at work on his final film, “Life’s Last Day” in which they all work feverishly on trying to find the best last line before the final credits roll. Fred and Mick talk about their life but conversation does not revolve around the eternal issues — the wonders and terrors of death, who we really are, why we are here. Rather they schmooze about the girls they regret not having sex with, the state of their prostate gland, and what they can and cannot remember about their high school sweethearts
Youth is also dotted with other interesting (and some bizarre) characters who are at the spa including the current Miss Universe (Madalina Diana Ghenea, “Dom Hemingway”) who reveals the seductive power of her youthful body in a memorable swimming pool scene with Fred and Mick. To prove that she is more than her looks, she engages in an ironic conversation with Hollywood actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano, “Love and Mercy”), whose most famous role was as a robot named Mr. Q. When Tree asks condescendingly whether she ever watches anything other than reality TV, she retorts, “I appreciate irony but not when it comes filled with poison.”
When he asks why, she tells him, “Because it reveals personal frustration . . . do you like what you do? I love being Miss Universe.” Also present is an obese former soccer player (Roly Serrano, “The Finger”) who carries around an oxygen tank with him, a young masseuse (Luna Zimic Mijovic, “Breathing”) who does unusual dance routines in her room, and a monk (Dorji Wangchuk) who meditates on the hotel grounds and is reportedly able to levitate. While the film mostly consists of unrelated vignettes, there are several dramatic high points. In one, Fred’s daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz, “The Lobster”) is brought to tears when her husband, Mick’s son Julian (Ed Stoppard, “Brideshead Revisited”), leaves her for a young woman named Paloma Faith (“The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus”). When Mick presses him for the reason he left his wife, all he can say is that Paloma is “good in bed.”
Another is where an aging actress Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda, “The Butler”) who Mick hired to play the lead role in his film, tells him that she will not do the film, choosing instead to act in a TV series. Her confrontation with Mick goes quickly from amiable to toxic in a few minutes that suggests the underlying shallowness of the Hollywood mentality. There is also a powerful monologue by Lena excoriating her father for being obsessed with his music, his philandering, and for never being there for her when she was growing up.
While the script of Youth is mundane and offers no profound message, its profundity does not come from words but from the silences between words, the beauty of the surrounding mountains and forests as shot by Luca Bigazzi, and from the sublimity of the music of David Lang including the “Simple Song #3” performed by Sumi Jo, and the tender lyrics of Mark Kozelek’s “Ceiling Gazing.” From the playful antics of Ballinger conducting the cows in a symphony of clanging bells, or the hefty soccer player kicking a tennis ball high in the air, Sorrentino lets us know that there are no age limits for a youthful spirit.