What does “Youth” say about aging?

Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth (2015) paints a tableau of old age. We find ourselves floating through a languid Swiss spa full of wealthy elderly people against a backdrop of majestic mountains and stale entertainment. Past the phase of life when much is required of them, the spa’s inhabitants are increasingly “emotional,” according to our protogonist, retired symphony composer Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine).

The film does explore the subject of youth, through the eyes of the elderly. Fred and his film director friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) fondly observe current youths around them with knowing kindness, as when Mick notices two of his screenwriting apprentices falling in love before they know it. The story suggests that youth is —if not wasted on the young—only contemplated via the reflective distance that comes with age. All the same, Youth assures us we can only marvel at and never understand the enigma of youth. When Fred and Mick watch the visiting Miss Universe (Madalina Ghenea) bathe naked, they declare in awe that she is “God.” (An earlier scene points out that Miss Universe has sharp brains as well when shames Paul Dano’s movie star, Jimmy Tree, for assuming she is vapid.)

Sorrentino’s story presents the concepts of old and young mainly through expressions of perspective. The elderly feel themselves isolated by ever-growing distance from the rest of the world. As we watch calm scenes of the spa guests bathing behind large glass windows, they seem to appear from beyond. Harvey Keitel teaches his young writing apprentices that, when you’re young, everything appears close. He holds a telescope up to a distant mountain, so that it seems near, and says, “That’s the future.” When you’re old, everything appears far away. He turns the telescope around, so that the nearby youths look distant, and says, “That’s the past.”

Fred and Keitel admit that they find it hard to remember almost anything about their families (how they looked or talked) or their childhoods. Of his youth, Mick says he can remember only the first time he rode a bike and the moment after, when he fell off. Fred, near the end, learns that Mick’s bike story is a metaphor for the first time he held hands with a girl named Gilda, whom both men loved as youths. Earlier, we see Mick recreate the sweetly tame episode with a prostitute at the hotel. (In the present, Fred has been obsessing over what it would have been like to sleep with Gilda. Mick claims he can’t remember if he ever slept with Gilda, saying this inability to remember is even more tragic. In the end we gather Mick just held her hand.) Fred is moved by Mick’s one vivid memory of the moment when the possibility of love first opened up to him. That this image stays with Mick throughout his life suggests that aging doesn’t have to mean a descent into confused loneliness while scattered, random memories swim in our minds. As we gain distance from our youth, the memories that do fade can leave room for our most profound recollections to emerge with renewed clarity and weight.

The spa’s now-obese former football legend experiences this when he briefly closes his eyes and remembers the bliss of being on the field. Asked by his wife what he’s thinking of, he answers, “The future.”

Looking back at the end of a long life, Youth haphazardly sums up all of human existence: romance, career, marriage, family, meaning, and so on. In Sorrentino’s trademark style, the story is broadly meandering and unrestrained in scope, full of episodic digressions, free associations, and vignettes. It tries to capture, in a disorganized way, all the pieces of the life puzzle that we struggle to make sense of as we pass out of this existence.

Fred ends the film by agreeing (after many refusals) to conduct his “Simple Songs” crowd-pleaser symphony for the Queen of England. Apart from denigrating the composition for its “levity,” Fred has resisted conducting it because he wants no soprano other than his wife to sing it. Before agreeing to conduct again, Fred looks back on the “simple song” of his marriage and faces the uglier, not-so-simple parts of that history (he was a career-absorbed adulterer and has not visited his wife, whom we first believe is dead but is revealed to be alive and mentally absent, in ten years). Finally making peace with his past and accepting his own accomplishments, even if he’s not Stravinsky, Fred falls in sync with time. His past and his future are one, and he experiences the greatness of his moment, in the moment.

As Fred receives his applause from the Queen, we glimpse Mick (now deceased) as he holds his hand up to his eye—the director viewing his frame, looking perhaps at a close-up of the future. We sense the cyclical nature of time. While the elderly may feel trapped looking at a distant view of the past, they can escape this illusion. We can regain that close sight, embrace the future, and feel forever young.