"Operatic" is not a term often used to describe great movies. Just ask Francis Ford Coppola, whose many fascinating films made after The Godfather and The Godfather Part II often are criticized as operatic, meaning "exaggerated and artificial." But it's a word that's hard to avoid — with far more positive intent — when discussing the work of Italian writer/director Paolo Sorrentino, whose 2013 film The Great Beauty won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and set a 21st-century standard for lush and vividly imagined filmmaking.
Like Coppola, Sorrentino's style involves not only brash visuals and strong emotions but also a certain audacity, a willingness to risk spectacular failure if that's what it takes to fulfill an original vision. The character-driven Youth is Sorrentino's follow-up to The Great Beauty and it is no failure, though "quietly audacious" fits the bill pretty well.
The story involves two old friends, accomplished artists in their twilight years, spending time for different reasons at an exquisite resort in the Swiss Alps. Small mysteries crop up and a mischievous sense of humor bubbles just below the surface. Mostly it's a chance for a range of beautifully drawn characters to philosophize about memory, aging, art and celebrity (topics that connect Youth directly to The Great Beauty). Youth is witty, sophisticated and brimming with small pleasures, but it's not for anyone seeking conventional storylines at the movies.
While on holiday, retired world-famous composer and conductor Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) inexplicably turns down an emissary from the Queen of England seeking a command performance of Fred's most beloved composition. His friend of 60 years, acclaimed Hollywood filmmaker Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), is holed up at the resort to collaborate with a gaggle of young writers and finish the screenplay for his "testament," a late-career opus that will secure his reputation as an artist.
Further connecting the two friends' lives are Fred's daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz) and Mick's son Julian (Ed Stoppard), who are married. Also at the resort are a serious, Sean Penn-like young actor (Paul Dano), a former "world's greatest" soccer player (Roly Serrano) who's now middle-aged and obese, and the recently crowned Miss Universe (Madalina Diana Ghenea). The possibilities are endless.
Watching the 82-year-old Caine and 76-year-old Keitel playing age-appropriate characters not far removed from their real-life personas is a treat for any film fan, especially since each seems to relish the chance to bring something personal to Sorrentino's universe. Jane Fonda has two intense and unforgettable scenes as the aging actress who will appear in Mick's film. The visual star of Youth is the Berghotel Schatzalp, the antique Swiss resort where the film was shot. Sorrentino and longtime cinematographer Luca Bigazzi serve up one astonishingly beautiful image after another to develop the right context for the film's metaphysical musings.
Though Youth recently swept the European Film Awards (the continental equivalent to the Oscars), it inevitably suffers by comparison to The Great Beauty. And it has some distinct flaws of its own. Most glaring is the intermittent predictability of the story, along with dialogue (unlike The Great Beauty, Youth was written and shot in English) that sometimes seems no match for the mesmerizing visuals. Sometimes you've got to take the bad with the good just to leave the mundane far behind.