Paolo Sorrentino, the Italian writer-director behind 2013 Best Foreign Language Academy Award-winner The Great Beauty, breaks narratives and lives down to carefully observed moments — exchanges between characters, explorations into solitary impressions, quiet meditations on the majesty of ideas and their impact on our humanity. In The Great Beauty, Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) has strolled through decades of opulence, attending extravagant parties and embracing the loneliness of crowded nightclubs and fleeting encounters. Yet his 65th birthday and a bracing surprise from his past forces him into soul-stirring reflection, where he confronts the absurdity of how so much of the astonishing beauty around him may have been ultimately wasted. The point here, it seems, is to face hedonism, not in any one moment of pleasure, but after a lifetime of experience, when the joy and pleasure no longer have intense immediacy, when memory bleeds away the vitality. The question becomes: What remains?
This query is certainly a larger issue than can be evaluated in one narrative, so it makes sense that Sorrentino would return to it, so soon, in Youth. And this time, he expands his angle of approach. He introduces audiences to Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine), a retired composer wallowing in the lazy warmth of ennui in a spa located at the base of the Alps. His daughter/assistant Lena (Rachel Weisz) has arranged for a schedule of sessions to stir his dormant body and soul, but Ballinger passes his time in the company of his best friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), an aging filmmaker who is unwilling to go quietly into the night.
Boyle, when he’s not comparing his meager urinary output with that of his good friend, wrestles with a team of much younger screenwriters, attempting to let the world know that he is still a potent force.
The obvious contrast between Ballinger and Boyle would be more than enough for most storytellers, but Sorrentino has something else in mind. Youth takes full advantage of its setting — the spa — which teems with people, most blissfully unaware of the affluence surrounding them. Unlike Ballinger and Boyle, they are not at the end of their lives, and they serve as intriguing points of comparison. Some are given a voice, like actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), mentally preparing himself for a new role while struggling with a typical performer’s dilemma: dealing with the fact that audiences recognize him for a mainstream/paycheck role rather than his more challenging work. Tree banters with Ballinger a bit as he seeks the older artist’s advice, and it is fascinating to look at Dano’s career, which, thus far, has been deliberately free of such franchise fare.
The real beauty of Youth emerges, though, in the other, less well-developed figures who seem to drift through this luxuriant limbo. Ballinger must fend off the advances of a persistent envoy from the queen of England, who wishes to have him come out of retirement to conduct a special birthday performance for her husband. A knighthood is dangled before Ballinger as an enticement, but he seems more engaged by a young boy (Leo Artin Boschin) who diligently practices Ballinger’s signature work each day. The boy’s dedication, despite his imprecise form, infects the conductor, reconnecting him with the elemental aspect of music that once inspired him.
Sorrentino captures this rediscovery through the score along with a series of images of Ballinger “conducting” the natural sounds of life around him. It is a wonderful moment, this merging of the audience with Ballinger in a form of creative expression that most of us would not be able to relate to on such a profound level.
The trick — a rather marvelous slight of hand — subtly places us not only in proximity to Ballinger, but also among the guests of the spa. We become aware of how we ourselves wander through life blind to the blessings we take for granted. In The Great Beauty, we were never more than mere passengers beside Gambardella, grateful to be in the position to admire the exclusive access we had as his plus-one. Youth, with an innocent and wandering eye, minimizes the glamor and privilege, spotlighting a common humanity that tends to succumb to invisibility. (R) Grade: A