There's a scene in Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth in which Harvey Keitel’s character takes a group of young screenwriters out on a day trip in Switzerland and shows them the difference between how the world looks to the young and the old using the two fields of view of a telescope. From one end, the Alps appear at close range, representing the future. From the opposite end, the landscape sits at a distance, representing the past. This is the angle from which we view the world in Sorrentino’s latest visual masterpiece, a film about memory, mortality, horror and desire.

Fred, a retired orchestra conductor (played by Michael Caine), vacations at an exclusive Swiss spa with his best friend of sixty years, a famous Hollywood director named Mick (Keitel). Fred is approached by an emissary of the Queen to receive knighthood on the condition that he perform his “Simple Songs” in celebration, which he rejects. On the surface, and at first, the idea of the song connotes a form of selling out, appealing to the masses because it's beautiful and easy to play. A young actor (Paul Dano) at the hotel developing a role witnesses the exchange and feels drawn to the old Englishman; Jimmy Tree is frustrated by the fact that, in spite of his body of work, people only recognize him as a robot in a blockbuster movie. Rounding out the main cast is the astonishing Rachel Weisz as Fred’s daughter Lena, who works as his assistant and is dealing with issues of her own.

Sorrentino makes visually stunning films, and as an aesthete is in full form here. A quick glimpse at other reviews leaves the impression that his latest effort is all style and no substance, but I have to disagree. There is so much lying underneath. It’s more show than tell, and show he does through a bevy of interesting characters and their physicality, including Miss Universe (Madalina Ghenea), a young escort and her mother, an elderly couple who never speak to each other at meals, a teenage masseuse with a wise soul and braces on her teeth, a former footballer and a legendary actress (played by Jane Fonda). 

It’s certainly not for everyone, as are most things in life apart from death and taxes. It may leave some feeling empty, sure. I’m reminded of the time I went to both the Uffizi and Accademia in Florence within the span of just a few hours. These museums are no insignificant thing (unlike the pop singer who plays herself in the film as an inside joke) you have to reserve your visit in advance and then wait some more when you arrive. It’s almost impossible to explain in words what it feels like to be in the actual presence of works by Botticelli, Da Vinci, Titian, Caravaggio and Michelangelo.

Emotionally drained, I left the city early, escaping to the Tuscan countryside the following day. Perhaps too much beauty-- the admiration of it-- can be exhausting. Perhaps it’s something that needs to be contemplated from a distance. Perhaps one shouldn’t visit two of the world’s most influential museums on the same day. Perhaps one should and not fear the feelings that come up. As Mick says, “Emotions are all we’ve got.”

Youth reflects on what happens to memory over time and the stories we choose to base our lives on; Weisz steals the show in a scene in which she lies on a massage table in a body mask, telling her father off with composure underscoring mounting rage, long-held resentment spilling from her eyes. She is breathtaking both physically and in regards to her craft. A movie to contemplate for oneself, and very much like the day I ran away from Florence after an overindulgence of the senses that left me feeling a little empty (only to wind up riding through some of the most beautiful valleys on earth): well worth it.

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