Thematically, Paolo Sorrentino's Youth (2015) is a sequel to the director's splendid The Great Beauty (2013). Although Sorrentino's films are Bernini-like fountains of ideas and digressive narrative, The Great Beauty, among other things, was about a writer suffering from a monumental writer's block entering his late middle-age. The charming, but indolent, hero feels mortality encroaching on his creativity and fears that he has wasted his life in useless love affairs and vapid parties. The writer's situation is developed in vignettes that take place against the religion-saturated background of Rome -- the Eternal City where answers seem to have been proposed to all of life's mysteries is a kind of labyrinth, a maze of statuary and religious imagery that remains bafflingly opaque, a series of elaborate gestures that is supposed to reassure but that does the opposite. Youth involves the same general questions, but, now, developed in extreme old age -- The Great Beauty's sixty-year old protagonist has been replaced by two eighty-year old artists, a composer played by Michael Caine and an American film maker, someone like Abel Ferrara, acted by Harvey Keitel. The Great Beauty took place against the baroque religious extravaganza of Rome; Youth is set in a health spa in the Dolomite Alps, an absurdly beautiful and luxurious hotel that is like a cross between Marienbad in Resnais' film and Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain. The guests at the spa hotel are mostly elderly and in failing health -- they are attended by hordes of younger masseuses, hydro-therapy and dance instructors as well as a few melancholy prostitutes. Youth is resolutely secular -- it peers into the abyss of old age without the consolation of religion. Indeed, in Youth, as in The Great Beauty to some extent, the religion accepted by most of the people cloistered in the hotel is a religion of beauty -- in fact, a religion of youth since the film (and its characters) equates youth with beauty.
Youth, like Sorrentino's earlier films, is staggeringly beautiful itself -- a glistening artifact that is something like the combination of an ultra-high-tech music video (in fact, the film features several music videos including an extraordinarily menacing one by someone called Paloma Faith) and a glossy lingerie or perfume advertisement. In general, the main arc of the film involves repeated requests made by an emissary of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip that Caine direct an orchestra and soprano soloist in a performance of a song cycle called Simple Songs. In the world of the movie, this is a renowned work, something on the order of Strauss' Vier Letzte Lieder, a work that Caine composed for his wife, a singer who has now lapsed into a vegetative state as a result of Alzheimer's disease. Caine refuses to conduct the work because he believes that only his wife can do justice to the singing required -- and, of course, she no longer can perform. Caine's daughter has been abandoned by her husband and, when she returns heartbroken to the spa, this forces the father and daughter into a series of confrontations over his past philandering, his homosexual experimentation, and his emotional remoteness. (These encounters are shrill and have a hectoring aspect -- they are like Ingmar Bergman colloquies, mostly consisting of long, lacerating monologues without Bergman's eloquence; Sorrentino is a little uncertain with English, at least English pitched at this emotional level -- this is also apparent in a parallel scene in which Jane Fonda berates Harvey Keitel for betraying the promise of his youth. These scenes feel like as if they would be more effective if spoken in Italian and subtitled in English; somehow, the emotional coloring is just a little "off.") There are a number of subplots, although these aspects of the film are merely anecdotal and not particularly well-developed: a married couple refuses to speak to one another but has noisy sex in the woods, Miss Universe appears to bathe naked before the wondering eyes of Caine and Keitel, Paul Dano, as the ultimate method actor, is preparing to play the part of Hitler and, in fact, at one point appears in the hotel's dining hall in full Nazi regalia with a black moustache painted on his upper lip, a Buddhist monk practices levitation, and, ultimately, Caine's daughter has an affair with a comically bearded Swiss or German mountaineer -- in a final vertiginous scene, we see them in an embrace hanging over a vast abyss. Michael Caine has simply abandoned musical composition and says he is retired; he has no regrets although, sometimes, we see him directing an orchestra of cows with their bells and mooing in an alpine meadow. Other scenes, he syncopates by rubbing together a cellophane wrapper, a sound that envelopes the viewer and drowns out everything else on the soundtrack -- this effect is borrowed from the sound of the pencil scratching notes during a rehearsal meeting in Bob Fosse's All that Jazz, a film that Youth sometimes resembles. Harvey Keitel has a group of young writers with him at the spa and they are working on his last film. But when Keitel's leading lady (Jane Fonda) withdraws from the project, the movie -- like the film in Fellini's 8 1/2 -- has to be abandoned. Keitel kills himself by jumping off a balcony at the hotel, an act that triggers an alarming reaction from his former leading lady -- she hurls herself violently against flight attendants on her plane and has to be restrained in the aisle between seats. The movie is full of physical complaints -- Caine and Keitel both suffer from prostatitis and have interrupted urine flow; as old people will do, they spend a lot of time kvetching about their aches and pains as well as remembering old love affairs. There is so much in the movie, it is such a baroque and effusive outpouring of imagery and music, that I'm not sure that the picture really coheres in any way -- it's as if Sorrentino wants to tell you everything he has ever heard or thought about growing old. Nonetheless, much of the film is extraordinarily powerful -- we see an aging soccer star who has become immensely fat dragging himself through the water in a swimming pool: he has a huge tattoo of Karl Marx covering his back -- an emblem that this film takes place entirely in the secular world. The soccer star is dying of emphysema and is filmed to emphasize his bloated belly -- a blonde trails behind him with an oxygen tank. But, in one scene, we see him kicking a tennis ball up in the air again and again -- an image that reminds us of his former physical prowess. The ravaged faces of the old people have an eerie beauty all their own -- we see them naked in saunas and wandering like ghosts through the meadows and decks of the spooky hotel. A sequence in Venice imagines the city the way it appears in Giorgione's great and mysterious painting, "The Tempest" -- it is pitchblack: here and there, a palace interior flashing its frescos out of a lit window to play in reflections on the inky waters of a canal; lightning flashes out of storm clouds. Ultimately, I suppose, the film exists to support one utterly memorable and shocking juxtaposition of images: Michael Caine goes to Venice to see his demented wife. First, he puts flowers on the graves of the Vera and Igor Stravinsky. Then, we see him in the nursing home with his wife -- she is a shadowy figure not really clearly shown in the frame. But Sorrentino, jarringly, cuts to a shot from outside the window of the nursing home. The woman is leaning her forehead on the glass and the exterior shot elicits gasps of horror from the audience -- the woman looks like a hideous staring corpse with her eyes wide with terror and her mouth gaping into an enormous "o". Later, at a concert -- Sorrentino's baroque spectacle requires that the Queen of England be present in the audience -- we see a gorgeous Asian soprano singing. There is a huge close-up of her lipstick-red lips as she opens her mouth to emit a high note and, at that instant, Sorrentino cuts to a shot of Caine's wife, viewed from outside the glass window of the nursing home -- as George Herbert wrote in one of his mortuary poems: "your mouth is open but you do not sing." This sequence seems to be the emblem that embodies the meaning of the movie, its controlling symbol, the contrast between art and beauty and death. Throughout the film, the movie veers between woozy sentimentality to unsparing realism about old age, death, and dying and, generally, Sorrentino redeems his sometimes forced grandiloquence with a shot of complex, unexpected, and transcendental beauty. In a whimsical sequence, Caine sits on stump and directs an orchestra of handsome and enormous cows. The scene goes on too long and is about to implode into saccharine kitsch when Sorrentino shows us two cows almost entwined, one animal resting its head on the breast of another, an image that is so strangely beautiful that it takes your breath away. What does it mean? The question is irrelevant -- it is just an image that is purely beautiful. In this film, beauty ambushes the viewer -- Miss Universe, when we first see her, looks terribly plain and, even, blemished, but, then, when we are shown her entirely naked, gliding into a thermal bath, we are astounded by her beauty. Michael Caine gets massages from a gawky teenage girl with a narrow and saturnine face and big ears; she looks remarkably homely -- but, then, we see her alone dancing sinuously and, suddenly, she seems incredibly graceful and beautiful. (In fact, she is playing some kind of video game requiring dancing). People who look ordinary are revealed to be secretly desireable -- the errant husband of Michael Caine's daughter has left his wife because his very homely girlfriend is "good in bed." The movie ends in such a surfeit of beauty that, at the showing that I attended, the audience sat in rapt, bemused silence when the film concluded -- no one dared to say a word as afraid to break the enchantment.