Symphonic and cinematic, full of melancholy and hushed magic, Paolo Sorrentino's Youth - the follow-up to his Oscar-winning The Great Beauty - takes place in a luxurious spa. The setting is the Swiss Alps, the snowcapped mountains majestic over green fields, the sky a soul-shattering blue. The people coming and going include actors and writers, a pop star and a Buddhist monk, a soprano and a mountain climber, young children, old men.
Two of those men, Fred Ballinger, a composer, and Mick Boyle, a movie director, are played, respectively, by Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel. If for no other reason - and there are plenty of others, I promise - Youth is worth the admission simply for the pleasure of watching these two wily veterans as they walk and talk and bring the script's decades-long friendship to life. The Brit and the Brooklynite come from very different places, artistically speaking, but the chemistry between Caine and Keitel is evident from their first exchange. Old timers, old pals.
Shot by Luca Bigazzi (he also filmed The Great Beauty) and boasting a breathtaking score from David Lang, Youth is a meditation on aging, on friendship, on love, loss, wisdom, disillusionment, pain.
"I'm done with work and with life," Caine's Fred declares, crinkling a piece of foil between his fingers, gazing across a manicured lawn to the resort's swimming pool. An acclaimed figure in the world of music, Fred is retired, and tired. He's fallen into gloomy idleness. Even the presence of his daughter, Lena (a staggeringly good Rachel Weisz), can't wholly bring him around. She is here nursing her own wounds: a breakup with a philandering husband who happens to be Mick's son.
Keitel's Mick, on the other hand, is using his time in this sumptuous setting to polish his latest project. He has a brood of Hollywood scribes on hand hashing out the screenplay. Mick is ready to get to work, and ready to cast the muse of his early pictures, Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda). When the actress appears at the luxe lodge, platinum blond, bejeweled, cosmeticized (a kind of jet-setting Norma Desmond), she and Mick have a confrontation full of recrimination and regret.
Youth is an emotional powerhouse. There aren't many encounters with the instant intensity of that Keitel-Fonda bout, but the quietest scenes resonate just as deeply. An emissary from the Queen (the aptly named Alex Macqueen) has come to the spa to request that Fred perform his famous "Simple Song #3" for Her Majesty, and the comically stuffy man can't understand why Fred refuses such an honor. The octogenarian musician finally explains why - in his room, with the Buckingham Palace official at one end and Lena at the other. The scene is shot so you see Lena begin to cry, as her father gives his heartbreaking excuse.
When Fred wanders into a pasture filled with cows - cows wearing bells - an impromptu and thoroughly remarkable concert ensues. Youth abounds with such surprises, with such beauty. Great beauty, in fact.
Youth **** (Out of four stars)
Directed by Paolo Sorrentino. With Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Jane Fonda, Paul Dano. Distributed by Fox Searchlight.
Running time: 2 hours, 4 mins.
Parent's guide: R (profanity, nudity, adult themes).
Playing at: Ritz Five.