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Rob Edelman: Youth

These days, so many films explore issues relating to young people: teens or twentysomethings who are coming of age, or falling in love, or seeking their place in the world. This is not surprising given the ages of the majority of contemporary moviegoers. But still, there are films that center on the lives of older folks. This list only begins with THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL and its sequel; ELSA & FRED, starring Shirley MacLaine and Christopher Plummer; and 5 FLIGHTS UP, also known as RUTH & ALEX, with Diane Keaton and Morgan Freeman.

Then there is the latest film whose central characters are senior citizens. It is the ironically-titled YOUTH, directed and scripted by Paolo Sorrentino: a moving meditation on old age and the passage of time. YOUTH is a fitting follow-up to Sorrentino’s similarly-themed THE GREAT BEAUTY, which earned the Best Foreign Film Oscar a couple years back. Both films feature older men who are looking back on their lives and are immersed in their fears and vulnerabilities. But unlike THE GREAT BEAUTY, YOUTH is filmed in English and features a high-powered international cast.

Michael Caine stars as Fred Ballinger, a widowed retired orchestra conductor who is vacationing with his daughter in the Alps. Ballinger is revered, to be sure. In fact, he has received an invite from Queen Elizabeth to appear at a birthday gala for Prince Philip. But for reasons that are revealed in the film, he is not at all thrilled by this honor.

Then there is Mick Boyle, played by Harvey Keitel: a filmmaker working on a new project, the title of which is LIFE’S LAST DAY. Ballinger and Boyle have been best pals for six decades, and the latter also is a hotel guest. And while there are various subplots, the two reminisce throughout about a host of subjects, everything from how they might have been better parents to the failure to remember as one gets older to the role of emotions in one’s life. Plus, there are telling bits of dialogue. One is spoken by Ballinger, who declares: “I’ve grown old without understanding how I got here.”

The film is loaded with Fellini-esque images which reflect these characters’ awareness of their age, and what may be described as male yearning. Ballinger dreams about a statuesque young beauty, and then he is shown to be drowning. He and Boyle watch a well-proportioned-- and very naked-- Miss Universe navigating a pool. Then there is a very young masseuse, with braces no less, who massages Ballinger’s body.

However, not all the senior characters are males. Jane Fonda appears in one scene as an aged movie star who reflects on the business of show business. It is a show-stopping scene to be sure, and Fonda just may walk off with a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award. Indeed, YOUTH is crammed with funny moments, and eloquent moments. It is beautifully visualized, with plenty of stunning imagery. 

Finally, as you watch YOUTH, you might recall its actors in their younger days. There is Michael Caine, once upon a time, playing Alfie and Harry Palmer. There is Harvey Keitel, working with Martin Scorsese in MEAN STREETS and TAXI DRIVER. There is Jane Fonda in a range of films, from BAREFOOT IN THE PARK to CAT BALLOU to KLUTE. All now are older actors, playing older characters. That’s the way life goes.

Rob Edelman as written several books on film, television, and baseball, and was a longtime Contributing Editor of Leonard Maltin’s annual Movie Guide. He teaches film history at the University at Albany.

 The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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