‘Youth’ explores what we make of life

“Youth” (2015). Cast: Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Paul Dano, Rachel Weisz, Jane Fonda, Abe Macqueen, Dorji Wangchuk, Madalina Ghenea, Luna Mijovic, Roly Serrano, Wolfgang Michael, Ed Stoppard, Paloma Faith, Robert Seethaler, Lee Artin Boschin, Sumi Jo, Nate Dern, Alex Beckett, Mark Gessner, Tom Lipinski, Chloe Pirrie, Sonia Gessner, Emilia Jones, Heidi Maria Glössner, Helmut Förnbacher. Director: Paolo Sorrentino. Screenplay: Paolo Sorrentino. Web site. Trailer.

The meaning of life is something that has mesmerized, perplexed and confounded mankind throughout the ages. And, much of the time, we come away from asking this question with no definitive conclusions. But making the effort to find answers is ultimately what counts, especially before the end arrives, an undertaking pursued in earnest by a colorful cast of characters in the moving new cinematic meditation, “Youth.”

British composer and orchestra conductor Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine), former maestro of the Venice Symphony, has spent years vacationing at a luxury spa in the Swiss Alps, enjoying the exquisite scenery and the company of his long-time friend, Hollywood filmmaker Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel). In some ways, the octogenarians have a lot in common, such as years of memories, mutual prostate problems, and the marriage of Fred’s daughter, Lena (Rachel Weisz), to Mick’s son, Julian (Ed Stoppard). But, in other ways, the pair couldn’t be more different; Fred is perfectly content to kick back and enjoy his retirement in seclusion, while Mick remains active and in the public eye, working on yet another new movie.

Long-time friends Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine, left) and Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel, right) share memories and good times while vacationing together at an exclusive Swiss Alps resort in director Paolo Sorrentino’s latest release, “Youth.” Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Despite Fred’s insistence that he’s put his working life to rest, there are those who try nudging him back onto the conducting podium. Lena, for example, calls her father “apathetic,” urging him to become more active musically as a means to remain vital, aware and alive. And then there’s Queen Elizabeth’s emissary (Alex Macqueen), who informs the maestro that Her Majesty would like to bestow the honor of knighthood upon him in exchange for conducting a command performance in celebration of Prince Philip’s birthday.

In both instances, however, Fred flatly refuses. He becomes particularly incensed when the emissary reveals the Queen’s request that he conduct his signature composition, Simple Songs, a piece the Prince is particularly fond of. But it’s also a work that holds personal – and painful – significance for Fred, and the thought of performing it again, even for a command performance and with the collaboration of famed soprano Sumi Jo (as herself), troubles him deeply, for reasons he’s highly reluctant to admit.

Mick, meanwhile, continues actively working on his new film with a coterie of young screenwriters (Nate Dern, Alex Beckett, Mark Gessner, Tom Lipinski, Chloe Pirrie) whose wide-eyed enthusiasm helps keep him young. However, despite Mick’s insistence on remaining active, he’s also aware that the years are catching up with him. So, with that in mind, he’s intent on making this film his testament, a consummate expression of who he is and the pinnacle of his artistry. He envisions the picture as a showcase for his favorite actress, Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda), an aging but prolific and profoundly versatile star with whom he has worked on many previous occasions. In doing all this, Mick’s clearly placing a lot of pressure on himself, but, with the clock winding down – and his health becoming questionable – he’s committed to seeing things through on this project while he’s still able.

As Fred and Mick attempt to sort out these matters, they also have ample opportunities to sort out their feelings about their lives. They frequently lounge by the pool or go on leisurely mountain walks, engaging in philosophical discussions about everything from their work to their families, their friendship, their love lives, their emotions, their regrets and, perhaps most importantly, what to do with the time they have left.

Lena Ballinger (Rachel Weisz), daughter of a former orchestra conductor, encourages her retired father to keep active to remain vital, one of the principal themes of the emotive new release, “Youth.” Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

In their attempts at arriving at meaningful conclusions about these issues, Fred and Mick often draw upon the examples set by other guests at the spa, such as Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), a young actor desperately seeking to find his voice as a performer, the spark that will give meaning to his career. Additional inspiration comes from other visitors, such as the recently crowned Miss Universe (Madalina Ghenea), an aspiring child violinist (Lee Artin Boschin), an ever-smiling Buddhist monk (Dorji Wangchuk), and an obese, middle-aged South American celebrity (Roly Serrano) in failing health who valiantly fights to stay vital. Even the resort’s employees have something to offer, such as the insights of a shy but proficient mountain-climbing instructor (Robert Seethaler), an amusing staff physician (Wolfgang Michael) and an intuitive young masseuse (Luna Mijovic).

Over the course of their stay, Fred and Mick’s vacation turns out to be as much an exercise in personal revelation as it is an enjoyable respite, and what they find out about themselves surprises as much as it enlightens. One can only hope that whatever newfound understanding they attain will serve them well as they move forward into the future – one that’s likely going to be just as uncertain now as it was when they were younger.

When we reach the point in life that Fred and Mick have, there’s a tendency for many of us to look back and ask, what has it all meant? Have we made the most of it? Have we done all that we wanted to do? What, if anything, would we have done differently (and, if so, how)? These are “the big questions” of life, the kind that often arise when our time grows short, which, as noted earlier, also usually leads to the all-important inquiry, what do we do with the time we have left?

In assessing these questions, we nearly always end up taking a serious look at our beliefs, for they ultimately determine how our realities – and our lives – unfold, the essence of the conscious creation process. So, if we truly want to find the answers we’re supposedly looking for, the first thing we need to do is ask ourselves, what do we really believe?

This is a question we seldom pose when we’re young; in fact, most of us don’t even recognize its relevance or importance in our youth. But, even if we do, we often put off addressing it until our sunset years (if then). Nevertheless, it’s an inquiry that’s pertinent at any age, whether we’re 19 or 90, because the underlying principle is just as true when we come of age as it is in our waning days. And, in light of that, this is why the answer becomes so crucial when our time is short; if we want to take full advantage of those dwindling days, we had better have a good handle on what we hope to accomplish – and the beliefs that will make it possible – with the time we have left.

Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), a young actor seeking to find his voice, looks to draw inspiration from the wisdom of elders to bring meaning to his work in director Paolo Sorrentino’s “Youth.” Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Of course, if we really want to get the most out of life, we’d be wise to ask this question sooner rather than later. By grasping this concept as early on as possible, we significantly increase the likelihood of creating the life we want (and a full one at that). Unfortunately, many of us evade it, allowing ourselves to become distracted by incidentals, worrying about trivial obsessions, and frequently whittling away valuable time, energy and consciousness on irrelevancies, ill-conceived pursuits and unproductive endeavors.

To that end, then, think about how much potential grief, disappointment and regret we might be able to avoid by addressing this issue in our 20s rather than our 80s. Admittedly, some may contend that it’s easy to reach that conclusion in hindsight, arguing that the experience of making “mistakes” and engaging in other assorted missteps is part of our learning curve, an often-problematic but necessary step on the path to the sage wisdom that comes with age. But, if we’re able to successfully fathom this realization and put it to work in our youth, we may find ourselves astonishingly pleased with the results.

As Fred and Mick come to discover, there are a number of principles that we should consider to increase our chances of success on this point, no matter how old we are:

• Allow ourselves to feel, because our emotions often provide clues about our beliefs, and the more clarity we have about them, the better we’ll understand how and why our reality materializes as it does. Of course, we must also believe that it’s acceptable to allow ourselves to feel in the first place; if we have problems with this, we may encounter undue difficulty in getting a handle on the intents that truly drive us. Several of the film’s characters wrestle with this, and often with regretful consequences.

• Be willing to live in the moment, not in an unchangeable past or an uncertain future. As conscious creators are fond of saying, the point of power is in the present, the only moment over which we have any meaningful direct control. By getting in touch with, and having faith in, the beliefs we hold at such time, there’s no telling what we might accomplish. The fulfillment achieved in such a state of mind could startle those around us, not to mention ourselves. (If you need proof of that, look to the example set by the Buddhist monk noted earlier.)

• Give yourself the time and space to deeply examine this issue. That’s where vacations can prove invaluable. By freeing up those precious resources and removing the everyday diversions that often get in the way, we enable ourselves to pursue (and, one would hope, achieve) this goal. Vacations, retreats and other such getaways provide ideal conditions for this kind of self-examination, as the protagonists come to discover with stunning clarity.

• Warmly embrace beliefs that allow you to give yourself permission to pursue your ambitions. This is particularly true when seeking to manifest your most cherished desires or when looking to extricate yourself from situations that no longer serve you. Of course, this also requires overcoming fear- or doubt-based beliefs that undercut intents aimed at realizing such dreams; by holding on to those outmoded notions, you run the risk of sabotaging the materialization of your heart’s desire, a potentially huge source of regret as the years add up.

• Remain active, both physically and mentally, at any age. When we allow our thoughts and beliefs to atrophy, we become less engaged with our manifestation skills and, consequently, with the reality we create. This may be fine when we’ve made peace with moving on to the next phase of our soul’s evolution, but, if we’re not ready to give up on our current incarnation, we had better remain involved with the realization of our existence. It’s not dependent on age or health, either; even those in the prime of life and who possess a vigorous sense of well-being may be tempted to withdraw, especially if their journeys have been full of disappointment. However, we must remember that our beliefs create our reality, for better or worse, and, if we don’t like what we’ve materialized, we had better get busy and make the necessary adjustments. And, because such modifications depend on us taking action, this is clearly something we need to address while we still have the chance.

Aging screen idol Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda) discusses her latest film project with a long-time friend and collaborator, a filmmaker near the end of his career, in “Youth.” Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

In the end, the principal life challenge we all face – just like Fred, Mick and all of their cohorts at the spa – is to sort out our beliefs to make some sense of it all. This is essential for understanding why we have experienced what we have, thereby giving us a newfound appreciation of the nature of existence. And, with the attainment of such enlightenment, there’s nothing that will make us feel more young at heart.

“Youth” is a sublime, thoughtful treatise about aging, what we do with the years we have and how well we understand it all as we move through the process. The picture stylistically recalls director Paolo Sorrentino’s previous offering, the Oscar-winning best foreign language feature, “The Great Beauty” (“La grande bellezza”) (2013). With its gorgeous cinematography, its superb performances by Harvey Keitel and Jane Fonda, its diverse and emotive musical score, and its deftly nuanced, beautifully layered writing, the film is a feast for the senses and leaves viewers with much to think about in its wake. Despite a few slow passages in the first hour, “Youth” tends to grow on you the further you get into it, effectively wiping away any memories of that minor shortcoming. Allow yourself to be moved by the experience, and you’ll come away richly rewarded.

For its efforts, “Youth” has received a modest share of accolades thus far, including a Palme d’Or nomination earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival, the event’s highest honor. In current contests, the film has earned two very deserving Golden Globe Award nominations for Fonda’s superb supporting actress performance and for the picture’s signature musical piece, Simple Song 3, an honor also bestowed on the composition in the Critics Choice Awards competition.

When we reach the end of the line, many of us would like to hope we come away from the experience having learned something about life and, more importantly, about ourselves. But doing so requires some effort on our part to assess how it all came into being, a process that, for what it’s worth, intrinsically begins with each of us and what we believe. By regularly taking stock of this, we increase the likelihood of getting the most out of the experience. To be sure, life truly is what we make of it, and films like this serve as valuable reminders of that. We can only hope we heed that advice while we still have the chance to do so.

Copyright © 2015, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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