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Review: Youth

December 11, 2015

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Youth PosterThe title of Youth, the latest and one of the greatest from Oscar-winning Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino, is perhaps meant as a reminder of life’s bitter irony and the elusiveness of being young, when memories of the past are constantly fading.

The film unfolds over a few weeks at a spa resort in the Swiss Alps, where a retired composer (Michael Caine) is vacationing.  The other guests include his adult daughter (Rachel Weisz), who still resents the fact that her father devoted his life to music, a fading filmmaker (Harvey Keital) trying to craft his final masterwork with a team of writers who can’t seem to agree, and a young actor (Paul Dano) struggling to find a meaningful role.

Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel both deliver moving and nuanced performances as artists coming to terms with their twilight years, and the two veteran actors have a wonderful sense of chemistry between them, allowing the central friendship to feel resonant and believable.  Rachel Weisz and Paul Dano also deliver some standout moments, and Jane Fonda shines in a compelling extended scene as an aging movie star, delivering a brilliant monologue that drives home the underlying themes of the film.

Paolo Sorrentino brings this all into focus like a maestro of his work, imbuing every frame with a sense of meaning, even if we sometimes have to search within to find it.  If Youth is more linear in narrative than his awards-laden opus The Great Beauty, it’s a film equally interested in drawing emotions from little everyday moments and observations, and it similarly won’t be for everyone.  This is a film that feels personal precisely because of how divisive it is going to be with audiences, an almost admirably non-mainstream work that is pretty much destined to be seen as either deeply moving or overly pretentious, depending on the viewer.  I felt the former.

A mood piece that contemplates the mortality of aging artists in a world that often favours the young and largely focuses on superficial beauty, Youth is filled with a rich sense of symbolism.  The cinematography is simply breathtaking, offering spectacularly orchestrated frames that include long takes and masterful uses of slow motion.  There is an almost dreamlike quality to many of the images, revealing moments of both profound beauty and heightened surrealism, quite literally in the case of a levitating monk.

There are flashes of divine humour here, satirizing modern blockbusters and music videos, but the film is also a moving swan song to artists, and powerful tribute to the last generation of big screen legends.  As the director and composer of its story prepare to take their final bow, and the writers in the film struggle to come up with an ending, Youth is perhaps meant as an elegy to the golden age of cinema itself.  When viewed through this lens, the end result is a beautiful and brilliantly acted work of art, and shining testament to the lasting power of moving images.

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