Paolo Sorrentino’s, “Youth” is a film with complexities and layered resonance that run far deeper than any one person at any one time could thoroughly explore. As such, I’m going to hit it with an angle of comparison that makes sense to me. But in doing so, don’t let this seem like I’m claiming Sorrentino’s intent, but just that as an evocative film, Youth has provoked certain ideas within me.


On November 1st, 1755, the holy day of All Saints Day at approximately ten in the morning, an earthquake shook the city of Lisbon, Portugal. It shook so hard in fact that it brought the city to it’s knees, with a death toll between twenty and one hundred thousand. Perhaps the deadliest earthquake in all of human history. A catastrophe so immense, that it's virtually impossible to disassociate the tragedy from the question: Why?

Not the, “why” that we would ask ourselves when creating scientific hypotheses about tectonic shifts, but the, “why” we ask ourselves when we look at the brutality and horror of the world and have no way to reconcile optimism with reality.

Lisbon Earthquake 1755

Lisbon Earthquake 1755

When Francois-Marie Arouet, known as, “Voltaire” learned of this tragedy, it only exacerbated his growing disillusionment with the state of the world. How naïve does optimism truly look in the face of ultimate suffering? Voltaire used this to great satirical effect in his magnum opus, “Candide.” A book following the eponymous Candide, a young man of, “the most unaffected simplicity”, whose face is, “the index of his mind.” This naivety and ignorance is driven by a Professor Pangloss who consistently reiterates the Leibnizian phrase, “all is for the best.”

The sarcastic tone that made Voltaire famous is also what makes this writing so powerful. Framing the idea of optimism as something reserved for the ignorant and unaware. Something to be laughed at, or embarrassed by. And it’s hard to argue with this—Indeed, seeing tens of thousands of lives wiped out in an instant by a random, unpredictable act of God?

Why?

This is a concept that characters struggle with consistently through the narrative. Some more overtly pained than sarcastic, such as an old woman recounting her torturous life:

“A hundred times I was on the point of killing myself, but still I loved life. This ridiculous foible is perhaps, one of our most fatal characteristics. For is there anything more absurd than to wish to carry a burden for which one can always throw down? To detest existence and yet to cling to ones existence? In brief, to caress the serpent that devours us til he has eaten our very heart?”

Paolo Sorrentino’s directorial career has been marked heavily by an obsession with age and beauty. His film, “The Great Beauty” was received with unbelievable praise and received the Best Foreign Picture Academy Award in 2013 and more recently, his mini-series, “The Young Pope” was released on HBO. Both of these titles make heavy implications about their respective characters—and indeed both films play heavily on these expectations of age, time, beauty and desire. But perhaps more than any of his previous work, Youth makes powerful and bold statements about life as it wrestles with how one should live. 

The two lead characters of Youth are Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine), a retired and disillusioned composer and conductor that’s being courted by the Queen to perform his, "Simple Songs" at his own knighting ceremony and Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) a veteran film director, writing his final, and most important film, his “testament” with the help of a group of screenwriters. The entire film takes place with in the grounds of an impossibly beautiful resort in Switzerland.

The implications of the title, “Youth” would seem to indicate that this film about age—and it is, but with a caveat that’s incredibly important. Youth is not a film about age as much as it’s a film about skepticism, and even anger. Anger at the futility of life, and age's relation to those philosophies.

Like Jep Gambardella in The Great Beauty and Cardinal Voiello in The Young Pope, Sorrentino’s vision of age is not limited to wisdom and experience. It brings it’s own prejudices and worldviews and in Gambardella’s case, a certain nihilism and apathy about what it means to be… anything. That all we do is inconsequential. In this same vein, we find Fred Ballinger. We meet him as he’s being approached by an Emissary of the Queen to be knighted, but only if he performs his, “Simple Songs.” Ballinger flatly refuses, citing, “personal reasons.” Sensing the conductor won’t budge, the emissary leaves.

Overheard by all of this is an actor, Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano) who is preparing for a role in a film. When the two meet for the first time, their conversation is set to the melancholy Mark Kozelek acoustic set, Tree tells Ballinger the two share something in common.

Tree says, “I was thinking today, how you and I have the same problem.”
Ballinger responds, “Is that so?”
“We’ve been misunderstood our whole lives because we allowed ourselves to give in, just once, to a little levity.”

Jimmy Tree communicates his distaste for a certain character he played named, “Mr. Q.” A light-hearted robot film that he is remembered most for, despite his more serious and, “important” work with directors across the globe. He explains how this relates the two of them, drawing a comparison between Mr. Q and Fred Ballinger’s, “Simple Songs” fame instead of his work on, “The Black Prism” and, “The Life of Hadrian.”

In agreement Ballinger states, “Because levity is also a perversion.”

Mark Kozelek guitar meanders in arpeggios through the scene as he sings, “Despite of all the things I’ve seen. There’s a love you showed to me.”


The foil to this seriousness is Mick Boyle, the director who claims to know everything there is to know about love. Enough to say that two of his screenwriting group are falling in love, despite their incessant and aggressive bickering in a later scene. Mick also is unable to understand why his son Julian (Ed Stoppard) would divorce Fred Ballinger’s daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz, who is verifiably brilliant) before Julian explains that his new wife is simply just better in bed. This dissonance between the man who says he knows everything about love and the man who clearly is just as lost as the rest of us is what makes Mick human. Optimistic, and perhaps ignorant, but full of joy and a lover of life.

His worldview encapsulated in the statement, “Good friends only tell each other the good things.”

This optimism is unbroken while in writing sessions with his screenwriting group. Even though the screenplay ends with a man on his deathbed talking to his wife, Mick shoots down the ideas that end in strife or anger. In Mick’s world illumination is found through positivity. Through joy.

When taking a walk through vibrantly green Alp foothills, Ballinger tells Mick, “Last night, I was watching Lena while she was asleep and I was thinking about all the thousands of little things that I’ve done for her as a father. And I have done them deliberately, so that she would remember them, when she grows up. But in time, she won’t remember a single thing. Tremendous effort, Mick. Tremendous effort, Mick, with a modest result.”

Ballinger is practically begging Mick for advice. For something to give reason to this tremendous effort? Echoing the tired and tortured old woman from Candide. Mick is unable to respond. Left speechless in the wake of such awareness, and the question, "Why?"

The inexorable tie to simplicity and in this case, "modesty" is something that it seems defines Sorrentino before it defines his individual films. His body of work shows at nearly every turn the exacting focus on this idea that beauty is not something to be found in the complex gray areas of psychology, but in the wonderfully accessible and modest actions and objects surrounding us each day. And this is the tragedy of Youth— in our quest to find something deep, meaningful, and powerful we forget what gave us reason for life to begin with. How quickly we forget that life is not a gauntlet that ends at enlightenment. It’s an open field, flooded with sunlight.

As Ballinger delivers his soliloquy about the tremendous effort with modest result, he is surrounded by one of the most gorgeous landscapes the Earth has to offer, yet we're tight on Michael Caine as he repeats himself, "Tremendous effort, Mick, with a modest result."

Miss Universe resides at the resort while the three men holiday. She approaches Tree humbly (sweater up to her neck, hair hiding her face, masking her beauty) yet unable to contain her excitement explaining how big of a fan she was of Mr. Q, the light-hearted role Tree detests above all.  After she goes on to say that she’s considered an acting career, Tree sarcastically asks her if she studies or just watches reality television.

Miss Universe replies, “I appreciate Irony. But when it is drenched in poison it is drained of its force and reveals something else.
Tree asks, “What?”
She replies, “Frustration.”

This contempt for the modesty and simplicity of humanity is one that runs so deep that Tree and Ballinger become embarrassed, and even angry by it’s mere presence. If you utter the words Mr. Q in front of Tree his first inclination is to attack back. If you ask Ballinger to play his Simple Songs he'll refuse, saying that he doesn't believe in love anymore.

Tree dons the full make up of his new role, Adolf Hitler, and strides around the resort grounds. He eats dinner in the dining room, only to be silently stared at. He angrily smacks the table realizing that Miss Universe was correct. Just as foolish as love is to devote yourself to propagating horror and pain. 

If there is no answer to the, "Why?" In the face of the horror in the world, then what's the use of defacing the power of youth, naivety and love?

Tree later tells Mick, “I have finally come to a conclusion. I have to choose. I have to choose what is really worth telling. Horror or desire. And I choose desire... You made me see that I should not be wasting my time on the senselessness of horror." He goes on to describe desire as, "so impure, so impossible, so immoral, but it doesn't matter because that's what makes us alive."

Sorrentino interjects here. The scene following, a fully naked Miss Universe steps into the pool with Ballinger and Mick. She walks to the other side while the two men watch on, in awe of the beauty.

Ballinger trembles as he asks, “Who is she?” (Despite having seen her once before.)
Mick smiles, and replies, “God.”

When Voltaire heard news of the earthquake in Lisbon, the death toll must have seemed even more astronomic by 18th century standards when the population was only around two hundred thousand. As a philosopher he asked himself, “Why?” And the answer that he received was silence. There is no answer.

When the answer continued to elude him and other thinkers of the day, they came to the conclusion that optimism is futile. There is no reason for it. Voltaire going so far as to satirically pick at optimistic tendencies of scholars at the time. Tearing down tradition and many believe contributing to the rise of European atheism. 

While Candide is satirical, the satire is one that frames a world without reason. A world of pain and suffering. One that is, in Voltaire’s opinion, foolish to ignore. The text itself is mostly recounting of hardship and torture with brief bouts of optimism that drips with sarcasm and irony.

However, this satirical view of optimism is one that is equally hard to reconcile as the idea of optimism in a cold, suffering world. How does one choose to live life? What do we do if there is no purpose? How can we believe it's foolish to indulge in the only beauties we've been blessed to be surrounded by.

Back in the pool Mick and Ballinger watch as Miss Universe lounges back. Mick continuing to tremble-- "She looks different" he says. "Unrecognizable."
Mick jokes, "that's because she's been transformed, from watching all of those robot movies."
A pool boy approaches calling Mick away, but Mick refuses saying, "Can't you see we're enjoying the last great idyll of our lives?" 

In Youth , Sorrentino refocuses the lens of humanity onto the universal truth. One that is so simple and modest, that it is constantly passed over and forgotten. One that’s almost embarrassing to say out loud. In fact, it almost feels silly to type it at this moment—but the world from the beginning of time has continued to turn because of the one basic truth of humanity.

               Love.

The opening frame of Youth is of the front woman of a cover band singing, “You’ve Got The Love” by Florence + The Machine. She performs on a platform that slowly revolves, revealing a spattering of audience members dancing, carefree around her. We hold on this platform and the singer as it revolves for almost two minutes while we hear the singer proclaim:

Sometimes I feel like throwing my hands up in the air
I know I can count on you
Sometimes I feel like saying "Lord I just don't care"
But you've got the love I need
To see me through

We cut to Mick at twilight as he watches a young, silent, blank and clearly miserable prostitute is ushered out of the resort by her mother. He leans his head back, despondent. Despite his optimism, and inability to respond to Ballinger's distress about the futility of life, Mick is not ignorant. He's just as aware as the rest of us.

Sometimes I feel like throwing my hands up in the air
I know I can count on you
Sometimes I feel like saying "Lord I just don't care"
But you've got the love I need
To see me through

When walking the grounds of the resort, Ballinger hears the melody of his, Simple Song No. 3. Upon investigation he finds a very young boy, practicing on his violin.

After telling the boy that he wrote the songs, the boy says, “My teacher makes me play it. He says it’s a perfect piece to start with.”
Ballinger goes on, “Yes, he’s right. It’s simple.”
The boy replies, “It’s not only simple. It’s also really beautiful.”

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