Director Paolo Sorrentino's reflective Youth shows off influences

Director Paolo Sorrentino's reflective Youth shows off influences

When Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth played at the Cannes Film Festival last year, the audience’s response reportedly split evenly between enthusiastic cheering and equally energized booing. That polarization came in large part because introspection is a tough pill to choke down, even when prescribed by a director with Sorrentino’s immense talent.

Most of Youth takes place inside a secluded Alpine spa where composer/conductor Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) vacations with daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz) as well as his best friend and in-law, director Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel). Fred tells all comers that he is retired and he will never again conduct his most beloved work, “Simple Songs,” no matter who requests it. While Fred runs away from his early accomplishments, Mick desperately tries to equal his earlier greatness as he hunkers down with a cadre of young screenwriters to craft Life’s Last Day, a film that will be “his testament.”

As the octogenarian artists grapple with their pasts, the younger vacationers around them despair over how they are perceived. Actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano) is most recognized for his appearance in a big-budget robot movie, but he wants to be known for weightier roles. And when Lena’s husband (and Mick’s son) Julian (Ed Stoppard) leaves her for British pop singer Paloma Faith (playing herself), she takes it as a measure of her worth.

Sorrentino stocks Youth with characters bearing a strong resemblance to either a real person (especially true in Faith’s case) or another character from Sorrentino’s filmography. With his swept-back silver hair and thick frames, Caine appears to be channeling Jep Garbardella, Sorrentino’s protagonist from 2013’s The Great Beauty, and Fred is similarly coming to terms with age and his sense of accomplishment. Much more on point, Dano’s character is a barely camouflaged Shia LaBeouf, castigating fans that only know him for a clanking, big-budget monstrosity and feeling that the only recourse is to take on a purely evil role in his next film.

Keitel’s character carries the greatest weight in terms of reference points. Mick and his young scribes suffer from writer’s block on Life’s Last Day, and any resemblance to Guido Anselmi from Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 must be purely intentional. Mick is derived from Guido, who was a stand-in for Fellini himself, whose own work heavily influences Sorrentino’s writing and compositional filmmaking style. Take a look at the extended fantasy in which Mick encounters actresses from his past or the surrealistic Roman travelogue in The Great Beauty, and prepare to experience strong echoes of 8 1/2, Roma and La Dolce Vita.

Caine is especially great at conveying the pride and privacy of an artist who wants to be left in Garboesque isolation. Fred rebuffs entreaties to revel in past glories, but is far more felicitous toward Jimmy Tree, who is seeking a way forward. Conversely, Jimmy’s youth and his struggle between depicting “horror or desire” in his acting proves instructive for Fred as he fitfully attempts to come to terms with his past.

Youth can come across on first viewing as unnecessarily opaque and pretentious, a case of Sorrentino taking a deep dive into his own navel, but it snaps together nicely on successive viewings as the ties between characters become more apparent and seemingly random scenes fit into place. With Youth, Sorrentino is still channeling his hero, but he chooses his heroes well.

Print headline: Musical Youth, Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth continues the Oscar-winning director’s love affair with Federico Fellini.

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