by Max SchwarzMany films touch on the themes of life and death, each in their own way. Whether we’re watching McMurphy’s rebellious hunt for action in a suffocating hospital ward (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) or McCandless’s call of spirituality and freedom to the woods (Into the Wild), movies show life’s adventures, meaning, and in some cases, eventual ending. Youth approaches these topics in a unique and refreshing way.
I first want to start by examining the characters’ goals and values. Youth’s protagonists, Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) and Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), both seem to be living their lives as if life itself is something of the past. They frequently go on slow walks through the Alps, discussing things of the past, the only topical discussions usually having to do with the amount of piss they were able to expel that day. Mick is finishing a film called “Life’s Last Day,” yet he cannot figure out the ending to this tale (reminiscent of his own life, he has no idea how it’ll end). Before the script is even finished, before the death of the main character is written, Mick gives a toast of victory to his crew atop a Swiss mountain. To Mick, in this moment, the ending of his story is unknown and trivial. This is very similar to Mick’s literal life; he is old and trying to celebrate where he is before the end. Life seems to have been written already for him, and as far as he’s concerned, he has made it to the top of the mountain. I absolutely love the subtlety of this scene, and the metaphorical story of Mick’s life work.
In Fred Ballinger’s case, life seems a little more complicated. He’s a quiet man who never had a knack for complex human relationships. Fred is retired and says he’s enjoyed life less than Mick has. To Fred, life is music. It is his passion, his hobby, and his past. Surrounded by images of recuperation and rest, we only see him experience true relaxation and peace when he conducts a group of animals in a moment that is both beautiful and surreal. Like Mick, Fred feels that life has passed him by and as a composer who no longer composes, he has left behind what he loves most. When asked what he should say to the pestering press, he responds with, “Tell them to forget me!” Fred admits that all he has known is music and that his marriage was plainly, a “simple song.” He is stuck at this hotel, crinkling a red candy-wrapper and watching the hotel guests. His life is slow and simple, but it’s shown with great dignity and power through his passion for music and decisions in handling the past.
Another wonderful theme explored in this film is legacy. In Mick’s case, the film he is working on is his “testament.” His spirit and confidence are riding on this project and the fate of the movie determines his own. We see various visions of his past characters in film, revealing the gravity and course of Mick’s legacy and eventual destiny as a filmmaker. Fred, on the other hand, plans on dying without conducting another orchestra again. However, after a series of spiritual happenings, he pays tribute to his past and present by adhering to his unwanted legacy and performing the essence of who he is: a simple song.
Lastly, I’d like to compliment and touch upon this movie’s use of movement and stillness. The kinetic energy and how it shifts in the film tells us a lot about youth and life. The stillness and inevitable velocity occurs in both objects and people. We are given images like a still tennis ball on an empty court and characters like a monk who claims to levitate but has never been seen in the act. Through a pair of beautiful sequences, both the tennis ball and the monk obtain a life of their own and take flight. Fred and Mick witnessing a young boy ride past on a bicycle should be such a mundane and commonplace occurrence, yet it is pumped full of emotion and meaning through the reactions of the two protagonists and director Paolo Sorrentino’s delivery of the shot. Youth does a fantastic job of putting objects and people into motion to represent and reflect on life.
The film’s true colors shine brightly thanks to the well-executed themes of legacy, movement and life viewed through the lens of values – all inherently relating back to their roots: youth.
4 out of 5 stars