YOUTH, the latest film from Italian auteur Paolo Sorrentino, is inspired by a story the writer-director heard about a famous Italian conductor who was invited to play for the Queen of England, but refused because they could not agree on the repertoire. From this kernel of an idea, the filmmaker began to construct a complex and poignant narrative about two old friends confronting who they once were and who they have become.
“A story about how people of a certain age view the prospect of the future slowly began to take shape,” Sorrentino explains. “The passing of time, how much time we each have left and what we will do with it fascinates me. The question I asked myself was, how does one look to the future when one is no longer young? That idea consumed me. Young people may find it difficult to imagine that the elderly see any prospects for the future. I tried to take the opposite approach and see what expectations people in their 80s and beyond might still have.”
The film centres around the enduring friendship between retired British conductor Fred Ballinger, played by Academy Award winner Michael Caine, and Hollywood film director Mick Boyle, who is played by Academy Award nominee Harvey Keitel, as they compare their sometimes conflicting memories of their lives.
“These two men have known each other since they were in their 20s – even Fred’s daughter is married to Mick’s son,” says producer Nicola Giuliano of Indigo Film, who has been collaborating with Sorrentino for more than two decades. “Fred and Mick have vacationed together at the same beautiful hotel in Switzerland for many years. They enjoy observing the other guests at the hotel, whose stories are woven into their relationship. In that beautiful and peaceful setting, they go through profound experiences that leave them transformed by the end of the film.”
As Fred, Michael Caine brings a gravitas and ease born of decades as a leading man. But even with his many years of experience, he professes to have been surprised when he was offered the role. “I had seen and loved THE GREAT BEAUTY,” says Caine. “I even voted for it for the Academy Award. So when I got a phone call saying Paolo Sorrentino had a role for me, I said, are you sure? An Italian director has written a role for an 82-year-old English actor in a film called YOUTH? I think you’ve got the wrong person.”
But when he read the script, Caine says he began to understand why the director had approached him. “I once asked John Houston why he never gave me any direction and he said, ‘if you’ve cast it right, Michael, you don’t have to.’ Paolo cast an 82-year-old Englishman as an 82-year-old Englishman. The film is not about not growing old. It’s about having grown old. And now where are you? In Fred’s case, he has more or less given up. As his daughter says, he’s a very talented, very sad old man who’s wondering how death is going to be. But apart from that, the movie is also very, very funny.”
When an emissary from Queen Elizabeth arrives at the spa to insist that Fred conduct his most famous composition for her, he flatly declines. “That’s the start of the story,” says Caine. “And it’s part of the mystery. Why won’t he play this particular piece anymore? The film takes you full circle, without you seeing what is happening. Obviously I knew what was coming, but still I arrived at the end with a sense of wonder.”
Caine was asked to conduct a 120-piece orchestra for the film, a prospect he found both appealing and intimidating. “Actually, it scared the daylights out of me,” he says. “I worked with two professional conductors to learn the basics, and I based my style on the more flamboyant one. When we did it, I had a lot of technical help, believe me. But when I finished that scene, the lead violinist came up to me and said: ‘You were much better than the bloke we had yesterday!’ I think it was all about looking confident.”
Says Sorrentino, “Conductors hold such mystery for me. What makes a conductor good at his job is known only to the musicians, to himself and to music critics. They make beautiful gestures with their hands, but I’m never sure whether it’s to look good or whether it is meaningful. The concertgoer, and I speak for myself, doesn’t quite know how it happens.”
Harvey Keitel plays a Hollywood veteran with scores of films on his resume – not a stretch there. But Mick has come to the spa to complete what he hopes will be his masterpiece. But even with a team of young screenwriters in tow, he is having difficulty finding the right ending for his magnum opus.
Keitel signed on based on the script, as well as the director’s work in IL DIVO and THE GREAT BEAUTY, but did not meet Sorrentino until they both arrived in Switzerland. “I was already a huge fan,” says Keitel. “His movies are universal. I felt that THE GREAT BEAUTY shouldn’t have received the Best Foreign Film-for me, it was simply the best film of the year. I knew this was a man of enormous talent and if you’re an actor, you want to work with people like him.
“I must have done something right in my life to have wound up in a movie with Jane Fonda,” Keitel continues. “I remember back in New York when I was still just studying acting, I walked by a theatre in Hell’s Kitchen and through an open window, I glimpsed a beautiful lady. It was Jane Fonda. I think of that as the first time I met Jane. She does magnificent work infused with the desire to reveal and to understand herself. And Michael Caine is one of the greats. He’s been an important influence on actors for as long as I can remember. He’s just a class act, period.”
Accompanying Fred is his daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz), who has spent a lifetime in the shadow of her distant father. Following him around the world as his assistant, she has made his needs the focus of her existence-at the expense of her own. As Lena tends to him in Switzerland, her husband and Mick’s son Julian (Ed Stoppard) arrives to inform her that he is leaving her for his glamorous pop-star mistress (played by real-life British pop star Paloma Faith).
Rachel Weisz sensitively captures the yearning, grief and pent-up rage that drive Lena. “Fred stopped composing and conducting when he lost my mother, his wife,” says Weisz. “In many ways, he’s given up on life. Lena has spent her entire adult life taking care of him. They even sleep in the same bed. She is a daddy’s girl, and her journey is to stop being a daddy’s girl. He needs to wake up from this walking coma, rediscover his passion and make a new life.”