“I don’t use twitter. I’m a serious person.”
When thinking about Paolo Sorrentino I often want to use the word serious, and then stop myself. His films have a lightness to them, and even the darker moments seem elliptical. But when I came across this brilliant quote, I felt it gave me permission to consider him a serious man.
Youth does not, at first, seem to be a ‘serious’ film. A famed British conductor, Fred Ballinger, (Michael Caine in a Tony Servillo turn) is holidaying in the alps with his daughter Lara (Rachel Weisz) and best friend and filmmaker Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel). Fred is being tempted out of retirement to play a concert for Prince Phillip, whilst Mick writes what he considers to be his last, and hopefully best, film.
But this is a Sorrentino film, and nothing is really about coming out of retirement to play a final concert; it’s about the intracacies and complications along the way. Sorrentino meanders through this loose narrative, contemplating life’s bigger issues, peeking through windows and doors, and stopping to stare at whatever he considers beautiful or interesting.
Fans of La Grande Bellezza will find much to be enjoyed here, and whilst the sweeping Rome vistas have been replaced with the comparatively contained setting of a luxury spa, there is a similar tone of navel gazing and philosophising.
Like many of Sorrentino’s films we encounter a roster of characters, from the morbidly overweight Maradona to Boyle’s team of scriptwriters, two of whom are slowly falling for one another. Even these minor characters – like those of ‘screenwriter in love’ and ‘girl screenwriter’ – have something more to them than their few lines or scenes allow – and it’s that feeling of an underlying depth and richness that makes all of Sorrentino’s films so pleasurable.
Michael Caine, who could be said to have played the same character in many of his films, puts on a performance of his career. Ballinger and Boyle are caught between the extensive successes of their past and the limited but crucial success of their future. There are many references to this impasse. Boyle tells his young writers to look through a telescope. He points out that the mountain appears really close, which represents the future. When he turns it around and peers through the other end, he says everything looks really far away – and that that is the past.
Whilst Ballinger and Boyle are preoccupied with a yearning for their youth, or at least what came with it, the film imparts a wisdom that is only really achievable through age. Youth doesn’t quite leave the same feeling of awe and sentiment that La Grande Bellezza impressed upon viewers, but that seriousness of Sorrentino’s, that explores birth to death and everything in between, is yet again communicated in the most beautiful, subtle, and comic of ways.