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Youth ***1/2

Director Paolo Sorrentino’s follow-up to “The Great Beauty” draws you into a luxury spa for meditation, reflection, thrilling scenery, and a happy rubbing of elbows with Miss Universe.

Is it worth $10? Yes

Paolo Sorrentino, writer/director of 2014’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar winner “The Great Beauty,” returns with another tale about wisdom, its limitations, and how it mixes (and fails to mix) with the ever-changing now. Except now it’s with an English-speaking, A-list cast, and time vs. timelessness is a conflict and an ever-present theme.

At a spa resort in the Swiss Alps, Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) is an elderly composer and conductor whose retirement may have been premature, especially since the queen of England herself has requested a performance for the prince’s birthday. Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) is a film writer and director who’s working on his cinematic “testament,” though he probably ought to have retired three films ago. If he doesn’t do so after an unforgettable tongue-lashing from an old actress friend (Jane Fonda in a cameo role), he never will!

“Youth” is also deeply concerned with truth, and the talented Neapolitan director takes pains to present an honest picture as he tells this compelling story.

Perhaps borrowing a bit from the Danish, turn-of-the-millennium, “dogme” style, he puts a live band on screen as a part of the first scene/opening credits, rather than the standard layering of music over other imagery. Similarly, when a pretty ballad plays, featuring a nylon-string guitar and a melancholy voice, the musician, Mark Kozelek (Red House Painters, Sun Kil Moon) is shown performing for party guests, including characters Ballinger and Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), a hip, young actor preparing for a role.

In this manner, Sorrentino seems to invite you into his movie. It’s a form of narrative cinéma vérité that says “Yes, you are watching a film. We are making a film.” Indeed, Mick Boyle, the veteran filmmaker, nearly always appears working on the screenplay to his latest work, discussing plot points and dialogue with his cast.

Several other characters, from a morbidly obese spa guest with one special talent, to Ballinger’s young masseuse, are presented with a certain respect, even love. The holistic pensiveness of “Youth” is its strongest suit.

Sorrentino purposely avoids having his characters’ dialogue sound too natural or conversational. Here is the rare case when it works in favor of the director’s goals for his actors to sound as if they are reading from a script. The implication is that, in life, we all “read from our scripts” at times, and that’s okay. It’s a gentle way of admitting we can be false and dishonest to varying degrees, and this brings the film closer to truth.

Yet, it is subtle enough not to feel dogmatic or political. Instead, this stylistic approach flows and fluctuates, so that the proceedings are infused with a deeper honesty without demanding attention or acknowledgement of itself.

Setting “Youth” in and around a resort hotel nestled into the Alps is a boon for Sorrentino and for the stunning photography of Luca Bigazzi (cinematographer for “The Great Beauty” as well), who works so effectively with the director to carefully craft compositions of sparkling, polished panache.

This remarkable film succeeds in its attempts at frankness and honesty. Its minor flaws come perhaps from a benign, youthful hubris, appropriately. The emotionally and psychologically immersive approach to its characters, along with the potent moods and atmospheres of the Sorrentino/Bigazzi collaboration, creates a beautifully human cinematic experience to be cherished.

Andres Solar reviews new movies with an emphasis on art house and indie fare for Punch Drunk Movies. He would love to see Burt Reynolds in another Paul Thomas Anderson movie but understands that it probably “ain’t gonna happen.”

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