Without the slightest hesitation, I’m calling Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth the best movie of 2015. Nothing else comes close. While 2015 has been a good year for movies, I spent all year waiting for that one film that would blow me away, and it was Youth. I watched it knowing nothing about it, except that it starred Michael Caine and was made by the same man who made The Great Beauty, a film that (rightly) won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for 2014 (also the BAFTA and Golden Globe in the same category). I was hopeful, but that’s all. It grabbed me from the very beginning and never lost me, bringing me to tears more than once (and not in any cheap manipulative way) — and more so on subsequent viewings (I’m up to three). Once I saw how the film had to end (on that first viewing), I realized that the climax could make or break the movie, depending on the quality of one thing (which I won’t reveal here). Happily, it came through.
This is a rich, rewarding, expansive movie — one that effectively straddles the gulf between art movie and popular film. (And, yes, for the subtitle-phobics, it’s in English, though the cast might have tipped you off.) The title is perhaps ironic — considering the film’s main characters, Caine and Harvey Keitel, are hardly young — but by the end of the film, you may think otherwise. Youth is a good bit like Fellini’s 8 1/2 (1963) and has elements of Ken Russell’s Mahler (1974) — with maybe just a touch of Visconti’s Death in Venice (1971) — but is ultimately, its own beautiful thing.
There is less a plot than a situation — or a series of situations. It mostly takes place at a health spa in the Alps where retired composer Fred Ballinger (Caine) and his best friend, filmmaker Mick Boyle (Keitel), have been coming for years. Also in residence is a young actor named Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano) and, on occasion, Ballinger’s daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz). For atmosphere, there’s also a (frequently nude) Miss Universe (Madalin Ghenea), a Buddhist Monk (Dorji Wangchuk) — who may or may not be able to levitate — and a few other (often peculiar) characters. What stories there are concern the efforts to get the determinedly retired Ballinger to conduct a royal command performance of his early composition, “Simple Songs”; Boyle trying to pull together a screenplay; and Tree trying to gain status as a serious actor. Into that mix comes Lena’s husband (who also happens to be Boyle’s son) dumping her for a pop star. And then Boyle’s star, Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda), shows up. There’s more, but none of it reads in any manner like the film plays out.
This is a grand banquet of a film. It flits effortlessly between comedy, regret, sadness, hope, resignation and maybe redemption. The movie mixes fantasy with reality and playfulness with the deadly serious. It chooses carefully what mysteries it will reveal and which it keeps to itself — and is dead on the mark in every instance. It is the kind of work — much like Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty — that could have fallen apart at any moment and miraculously doesn’t. The fact that it dares this risk is part of its greatness.
The performances are all exceptional — Caine, in particular, is outstanding, but the others (including Fonda’s short appearance) are not far behind. The cinematography is beautiful to behold, and the music by American composer David Lang is stunning. In a way, Youth actually is more like a great, slightly impenetrable musical composition that suggests as much as it states — than it is like a movie. And yet it is a movie — and a truly great one. Rated R for graphic nudity, some sexuality and language.
Playing at Carolina Cinemas and Fine Arts Theatre.