In a word, Youth is probably best described as frustrating. It is by no means a bad film, but it is a rather obtuse one, a film that requires you to acclimate to director Paolo Sorrentino’s seemingly bizarre sensibilities, and even then it will likely lose a lot of its audience to its pretentions. However, there are really extraordinary pieces to this puzzle, even if those pieces don’t fit together in a conventional sense or even one that I would particularly prefer. It’s best to go into this one knowing what to expect, though.
Set in a Swiss resort, the film follows the day-to-day lives of retired composer Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) and working director Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), best friends for the past sixty years. Those looking for a clean narrative throughline to this film should look elsewhere, as the film purposely avoids doing so, only coming close in the opening and closing moments as Fred wrestles with a decision to return to conducting at behest of Queen Elizabeth. Rather, this film operates in themes and motifs, often returning to repeated phrases or visual callbacks in order to create moments of symmetry and contrast, particularly in how Fred and Mick approach their pasts and futures in old age.
Caine gives one of the most nuanced performances of his late career and Keitel is similarly engaging, particularly in later scenes where we see what fruits his character's current cinematic labor will reap. The supporting cast is also noteworthy, from Paul Dano as a jaded young actor who wants to be remembered for more than his most popular role in a sci-fi film, to Rachel Weisz as Fred’s daughter trying to recover after her husband dumps her to marry a pop star. All of these characters have a great chemistry with one another that not only makes for great drama, but a surprising amount of comedy that left me laughing much harder than I would have thought from a film about old men pondering their near demises.
The real star, though, is the cinematographer, Luca Bigazzi, who composes shot after gorgeous shot that seem to belong more in an art book than they do in a motion picture. And I don’t say that solely to compliment Bigazzi’s work; these shots belong moreso in an art book than in this film. The editing is erratic, absurd at the best of moments but completely baffling at the worst. As gorgeous as this film is at times, those moments only serve to pull us away from the characters, the only thing this film has going for it in any semblance of a narrative. Particularly when the film veers into more serious territory in its later scenes, these moments become tedious, distracting from the character drama that is supposed to be engaging us.
As I said before, Youth is a frustrating film, but not one without merit. Sorrentino seems to want to play with the medium of film in purposely musical ways, playing more to emotional spectacle through repetition and variation than to conventional three-act structure. And that’s fine, but I don’t think the experiment is an entirely successful one, particularly when it tries to pull back on the reigns and ground its narrative in its two leads. But without that grounding, the film could have veered into true avant garde territory, and who knows what would have resulted. As is, Youth is entirely watchable and not entirely pointless, and your entertainment will likely be dependent on keeping that in mind.