Youth (2015): Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino's magical cinematic tapestry which juxtaposes the pining for youth against the youth itself

A grand portrait of desire for youth and its rather shallow, inconsequential nature

By Roopa Barua

Featured in IMDb Critic Reviews

Youth, Movie Poster, 2015, Directed by Paolo Sorrentino, Cannes 2015, starring Michael Caine, Harvey Kietel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano
Youth (2015) By Paolo Sorrentino
IMDb Ratings: 7.8
Genre: Drama
Cast: Michael Caine, Harvey Kietel, Rachel Weisz
Country: Italy France | Switzerland | UK
Language: English
Runtime: 118 min

SummaryFred and Mick, two old friends, are on vacation in an elegant hotel at the foot of the Alps. Fred, a composer and conductor, is now retired. Mick, a film director, is still working. They look with curiosity and tenderness on their children's confused lives, Micks enthusiastic young writers, and the other hotel guests. While Mick scrambles to finish the screenplay for what he imagines will be his last important film, Fred has no intention of resuming his musical career. But someone wants at all costs to hear him conduct again.
Youth is a gentle breeze, youth is the petals of a flower, youth is walking softly on dewdrops, youth is smooth alabaster skin, youth is lithe, youth is buxom, youth is… a pining.
Youth is a noun, a verb, a metaphor or a simile.

Youth is everything and more to the two central characters in Paolo Sorrentino’s film ‘Youth’–Retired British music composer Mr. Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) and film director Mick (Harvey Keitel).

Set up in the grandest tradition of majestic Italian cinema in the footfall of the maestros Fellini, Bertolucci and Rosselini, Sorrento weaves us a magical tapestry of pining for youth. In this film, both the pining for youth and youth itself stand facing each other. The pining and the reality stare each other in the face and often question and tease each other.

Michael Caine as retired music composer 'Fred' in Paolo Sorrentino's Youth
Michael Caine as Fred in Paolo Sorrentino's Youth
Youth is very similar stylistically to Sorrentino’s Oscar-winning film ‘The Great Beauty' which also revolved around the trial and tribulations of an ageing man who lived in the spotlight. Sorrentino’s operatic and stylized treatment of his work has become synonymous with his films and this film treats on the same ground with exuberance and flourish in its style.

Fred and Mick are vacationing in a Swiss medspa with Leda (Rachel Weissz) who is Fred’s daughter. Leda has just been let go by her husband—Mick’s son for a woman ‘who is better in bed’. And then we have the rest of the ensemble cast in the hotel—a young actor (Paul Dano) prepping for his next role, a completely out of shape football star (Maradonna, anyone?) and the reigning Miss Universe who is given a free stay at the hotel as part of a bag of goodies for winning the crown. 

Caine as Fred has been asked to play one of his significant pieces—one of his earlier masterpieces ‘Simple Songs’ for the Queen of England but he refuses because he wrote it only for his wife. She can perform no more. So he turns down the Queen’s invitation.

Harvey Kietel as Mick in Paolo Sorrentino's Youth
Harvey Kietel as Mick in Paolo Sorrentino's Youth
He starts questioning Keitel’s involvement with a girl named Gilda whom they were both fond of as youngsters. Never mind that they are both now nearing eighty and discussions of teenage intimacy are beyond any relevance. He just has to know whether Keitel got to have a more intimate relationship with Gilda. It just bothers him and stays fixed in his mind. The nostalgia for youth and his constant quest to find the most invisible moments that ever existed leads him to constantly meander through obtuse territories of teenage love, early marital love, virility, alertness, and, yes finally bodily functions.  At every step of the way, he is a pained soul who lives completely in the present and hopes to find the past in it. His is a disillusioned face breaking into a taciturn smile, grandfatherly in his approach and almost always serenely happy when he encounters a young beauty. Subliminal he is every passing moment.

And then the imagery and visions start… into a Fellini-like world we enter—the symmetrical elderlies in the hot tub and sauna, the sensuous masseuse in her abundance, the solarized images of old male guests getting young girls or the lack thereof, the Miss Universe catching all unaware by her nudity, the failing football star practicing football with a tennis ball… the list goes on into the territory of the freak and the bizarre as just as a grand Italian maestro could do. And the relentless music score that just about levitates every freak visual to the extreme.

Rachel Weisz in Paolo Sorrentino's Youth
Rachel Weisz in Paolo Sorrentino's Youth
Keitel’s character seems to be more laidback and just a tad confused. He is writing a film with a new cast of scriptwriters who are all young bumbling idiots. But everything falls apart when Hollywood diva Brenda (Jane Fonda) visits him and tells him that she cannot act in his films and gives her monologue about the state of Hollywood. Sorrentino pegs the monologue in a surreal, exaggerated and fantastic manner albeit with some truth.

Sorrentino plays in a mindscape, which juxtaposes desire versus the real deal. The real deal of youth is raw beauty but it is shallow and inconsequential. After all the hype of the Miss Universe arriving, she gets a full frontal nudity shot and is then almost banished from the film. The young actor is good company but he is more spent and tired than the old ones, the young lovers are still trying to outdo each other in the department of amour. Sorrentino keeps revisiting the masseuse in her dance studio where she is more style than substance. The sudden visions of youth are angular, jarring and grotesque… the swooping camera shots add to the allure… what plays on in Caine’s mind is just some fragments of a flight of fancy.

Paul Dano (left) in Paolo Sorrentino's Youth, with Michael Caine and Harvey Kietel
Paul Dano (left) in Paolo Sorrentino's Youth
Caine finally comes to terms with the fact that show must go on and he has to perform for the queen at her invite. He surreally visits his paralyzed wife and spends a few tender moments with her telling her everything. This is perhaps one of the most enduring scenes in the film. The vision of the wife is one stone cold paralyzed person… we don’t really know if she heard anything. But Caine is all effusive and gushing… as young as one can imagine him to be... and absolutely vulnerable too. This is one brilliant piece of acting from one of the biggest actors of our times.

Sorrentino layers his film with his perspective that our own relationship with the future is a relationship we develop with ourselves. The future gives us freedom and freedom gives us the feeling of youth. The more we stop thinking about the future, the sooner we age.  And then we look back at what we lost never to get back again. 

By some quirky semblance of homage to an alter ego tradition, the film touches upon two genres that seem to fade in the contemporary world… music (as represented by Caine) and cinema (as represented by Keitel). But then they both reinvent and renew and live on for more time to come. This is exactly the scope of the characters of Caine and Keitel who are fading from their former glorious selves but still seem to come back. Caine and Keitel seem to be almost a composite for Marcello Mastroianni in Fellini’s albeit with less of a megalomaniac touch. Their best is clearly behind them but they were significantly attempting to carry on with their work.

A Still from Paolo Sorrentino's Youth, Miss World in a swimming pool, with Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel
A Still from Paolo Sorrentino's Youth 
Caine finally decides to sing for the Queen at her special ceremony. Thus in the grandest flush of a multi-piece orchestra complete with a soprano singer, he delivers his piece of music ‘Simple Songs’ which ends up like a bad rehash of the Spice Girls meets Miss Fifties pulp. 

Sorrentino has played largely with the surreal images in the film. A dreamscape for Leda where former husband and his lover have a video mash up hurtling down a highway on steroids or the St Mark’s Square in Venice, all underwater, and a soulless spa with weird figures swimming around, he has managed to captured what we think is the fantasy of youth or being young. Youth is simple yet conniving, sweet yet terrifying and most importantly probably inconsequential. This is the absurdity of Sorrentino’s film, an absurdity that almost obstructs us when we start having empathy for the characters. A work that stands to show us the simple power of youth and yet the totally inconsequential and transactional nature of this power. This in itself is probably the high point of Sorrentino’s Youth.

About Author - 

Roopa Barua, Cannes Special, A Potpiourri of Vestiges, Film blog by Murtaza Ali

Roopa Barua is a fan of the cinematic medium. She seeks to discover and experience nuanced cinema that goes beyond geography and human boundaries. Roopa is also an award winning documentary filmmaker. She can be reached at

Readers, please feel free to share your views/opinions in the comment box below. As always your feedback is highly appreciated!  


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  1. This is a wonderful review. Loved this - "The pining and the reality stare each other in the face and often question and tease each other." I'll be watching this movie soon.

  2. Thanks Sakshi... appreciate it... Roopa has certainly written it beautifully! :-)

  3. If she will write so well, cinemagoers would 're-view' rather than view ;-) ...brilliant write up/review !!!

  4. Thanks Vijay for those kind words! :-)

  5. Not good. Caine and Keitel were poor choices. They never get comfortable in their roles, partly because the script is implausible, but they also didn't like the mismatched characters they were chosen to play. I must admit the fabulous scene of the nude woman in a pool was breathtaking. It made me crinkle my candy wrapper, an unwise thing to do. I got bopped on my ear by a guy behind me.


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