Youth would more appropriately have been called "Age"--but then perhaps even fewer people would have been tempted to see this provocative movie starring Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel and Rachel Weisz. It's set in a luxury health spa in the spectacular environment of the Swiss Alps, irresistibly photogenic locations, both, for a story that's told in a patchwork of brief conversations, quickly seized portraits and erotic teases, lovely, lyrical landscapes of mountain and meadow, along with unpredictable snatches of dream and nightmare--and sometimes hilarious surrealistic asides.
Fred (Caine) and Mick (Keitel) are long-time buddies drifting uncomfortably into old age--Fred a composer, Mick a film director, each confronting a creative life, the best part of which now lies behind them. Surrounded by young people, including their own grown children, they gaze at the ubiquitous spectacle of youth with bemusement, a measure of envy, and a sense of regret for lost opportunities. Urged to accept the honor of a command performance by the Queen, Fred falls back on the "apathy" he's now allowed to take over his post-creative life, refusing the offer with a kind of haughty cynicism that reads more like a defense mechanism to protect him from having to live up to a reputation he feels he doesn't deserve. He is--the point is made on several occasions--no Stravinsky.
He was no father, either, it appears, in his daughter's view. Like many (mostly male) creative people of his generation, he was romantically wedded to a narcissistic sense of himself an "artist," at the cost of close relationships with his wife and children. His daughter, abandoned once again, this time by a husband (Mick's son) castigates him into a realization of his disconnection with his emotional life, and he reluctantly begins the inner journey it will take to bring him back from the safety of his apathy--including a visit to the long-neglected, now seemingly demented wife, whose loss he has been mourning without allowing himself to know it. This is a journey his friend Mick chooses not to take, ending his life in a gesture that confirms its meaninglessness. The final scene brings Fred back to that command performance, elegantly conducting the signature work that he had long rejected.
It's a poetic work. The performances of Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel are compellingly believable in their portrayal of old age, with all its aches and gripes. The move resonated, particularly, with me. I know of many, not excluding myself, in the same place as these two men, looking back on a creative life and judging it as having reached somehow less than their full potential. Apathy is a constant temptation as the mind and body age: it was an effort of the will to even write the first words of this "review." Youth is all around me. I find myself gazing at it, as do Fred and Mick, with a blend of weariness and envy; as do my own, their erotic fantasies engendered by the beauty of the human flesh must needs go unfulfilled. Time seems short, and the question constantly arises: how much longer?
So Paolo Sorrentino's movie might seem bleak--but it pulls back from that edge not only with a wicked sense of humor but also with the grandeur of its natural setting and the real humanity of its characters. And then, too, there's the salvation of its last scene, a glorious piece of music performed with something Fred finally learned to find with himself: the heart.