Life can feel either short or infinite. In our twilight years, people often reflect on their early life as if it is in the distant past. However, “Youth,” written and directed by the talented director Paolo Sorrentino, reminds us that our youthful years unexpectedly manifest throughout our lifetime and to cherish every breathing moment — and that now is the time to be alive.
Set in a luxurious resort in the Swiss Alps, “Youth” features two old best friends, Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine), a retired composer, and Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), a “great” director, as they enjoy each other’s company in a transformative vacation, always telling each other “the good things.” Despite the relaxing atmosphere and glorious pools pervading it, the resort hosts what can best be described as morose or regretful elderly and some confused or agitated youth, which brilliantly juxtaposes the conflicting emotions of both. From the start, Fred is established as a genius composer and is nicknamed “Maestro” by the Buckingham Palace emissary. Indeed, the Queen and the Prince want Fred to conduct one of his “simple songs,” but he refuses the offer for “personal reasons.” Immediately afterwards, Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), a frustrated actor famed for playing a robot in the smash hit “Mister Q,” comments, “we allowed ourselves to give in, just once to a little levity.” Although Jimmy is witty and a purveyor of wisdom, he mistakenly confuses “Simple Songs” for simple songs.
On the other hand, Mick is working on a script — or his “testament,” as he describes it —with young collaborators. Strikingly, his film’s title is “Life’s Last Day.” While Fred is comfortable forgetting about unpacking the mystery of life, Mick demonstrates a great resolve to “believe in everything in order to make things up” — he wants and expects more out of life. Despite viewing life differently, both men convey a life of successes and illusions. Throughout the film, the best friends reflect on the past, essentially delineating the fickleness of life and the fragile nature of memories. In their interactions, Fred and Mick touch upon common experiences and lost possibilities but always end with thundering pronouncements. However, the film is not only insightful but also subtly comical: Fred and Mick competitively ask about each other’s quantity of urine and wonder together about high school sweethearts.
Interestingly, Fred and Mick are also in-laws, as Fred’s daughter, Lena (Rachel Weisz), is married to Mick’s son, Julian (Ed Stoppard). However, abruptly before their honeymoon, Julian professes his love for another woman to Lena and leaves her. She returns forlornly to the resort, seeking solitude and comfort from her father.
Provoked by Fred’s ultimate lack of understanding and compassion, Lena lashes into a strikingly powerful monologue about his frigidness, neglect and destructive devotion to music — now, she remarks, she is free. It is a moment that offers harbored reservoirs of sentiment, reminding its audience of deep and buried emotions. Moved, Fred eventually visits his wife in Venice, telling her: “Children, don’t know their parents’ ordeals … They don’t know that I trembled the first time I ever saw you on stage. All the orchestra behind my back were laughing at my falling in love. And my unexpected fragility.”
Without a doubt, it’s a redeeming moment for a seemingly lost soul. Later on, Mick is frustrated when Brenda Morel (Fonda), his female star, leaves him to indulge in “the future” — television shows. Mick exclaims, “We are all extras.” However, I disagree — I think we have a choice regarding how to live life: We may be nothing and everything. I agree, nonetheless, with Mick on one undeniable truth: “Emotions are all we’ve got.” “Youth” ultimately teaches us that aging is unavoidable, people constantly lust after youth and vanity haunts us all. Remarkably, Oscar-winning director Sorrentino denotes that life itself can be a simple song. He delivers a dramatic comedy movie that highlights grand themes and pearls of wisdom. Indeed, “each scene has a life of its own,” as film critic Simon Abraham appraised. Infused with unparalleled sights and intoxicating music, “Youth” is telling us that all we need to do is to stop looking — and to start living.