Paolo Sorrentino has become one of the most divisive of contemporary European filmmakers - beyond his undeniable talent for strikingly conceived and realized images, there's a love-it-or-leave-it audacity to his films that turns him into a lightning rod for critical revilement and audience devotion. Youth, his follow-up to the Oscar-winning The Great Beauty and second major international film after the bewilderingly received This Must Be the Place, won't change a bit of that.
It's a confused and confusing movie, at heart a meditation on age and love as seen through the exchanges between two aging artists (Michael Caine as a retired maestro and composer and Harvey Keitel as a veteran film director) vacationing together in an exclusive Swiss retreat. As befits Mr. Sorrentino's work, it's a showy, look-at-me visual statement full of eye-catching visuals, his trademark lateral pans and slow zooms framing in exquisite colour and perfectly balanced detail bodies and buildings, often to stunning but dramatically pointless effect. It's also a rather uncertain film: you're never quite sure what the director is trying to say, not that it matters much since it all looks so ravishing.
Yet, for all the wearied archness of the stop-start narrative, Youth continues to suggest that Mr. Sorrentino is more interesting in constructing his films out of mood and setting than out of story; there's a clear sense he is passionate and sincere about the work, and that he is putting himself out there full steam ahead and damn the torpedoes. Like it or not, it's his vision, he's not letting go of it and there really isn't anyone else doing stuff like this on screen - some scenes, like Rachel Weisz's massage monologue or the climactic stand-off between Mr. Keitel and a surprisingly gutsy Jane Fonda, are extraordinary moments of cinema. But the fact those are outliers suggests that Youth seems to be grandstanding visually a bit more, and to have a little less to say, than usual in the filmmaker. For all its problems, though, there's something in Youth that you can't simply dismiss as hackwork.
Italy, France, UK, Switzerland, 2015, 124 minutes
Starring Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Jane Fonda
Directed and written by Paolo Sorrentino; cinematographer Luca Bigazzi (widescreen); music by David Lang; production designer Ludovica Ferraglio; costume designer Carlo Poggioli; film editor Cristiano Travaglioli; produced by Nicola Giuliano, Francesca Cima and Carlotta Calori, for Indigo Film in co-production with Barbary Films, Pathé Production, France 2 Cinéma, Number 9 Films, C-Films, RSI SRG SSR and Téléclub, in collaboration with Medusa Film and Mediaset Premium, in association with Filmfour
Screened December 2nd 2015, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon