Ludovica Ferrario has been collaborating with Italian director Paolo Sorrentino since working as assistant production designer on his Oscar-winning The Great Beauty. His current film, Youth, continues some of the earlier film’s themes, about the ephemeral – perhaps even absurd – nature of time, and the bonds we form (and lose) while hurling through out.
Youth is filmed in English, however, and stars Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel as two old friends who find themselves in a kind of magical realist Swiss Alps resort as they ruminate on their lives.
And Ferrario is back not assisting, but as lead production designer, for the director she calls “part Fellini, part Wes Anderson, all Sorrentino.”
In an email interview from abroad – she is currently working with the director on his The Young Pope miniseries, about a first American Pope – she talked about having to design a main setting, the hotel, that would embody the film’s “perception of time – present, past and future as a dimension of relationship with oneself and others.” These qualities, she said, were “what touched and attracted me most” to the project.
As for literalizing those qualities in the resort setting, she said, “this dimension became a setting – we built in an invented hotel, shot in three different locations, in two different countries.”
Those included already renowned spots like the legendary – and Wes Anderson-y – Hotel Waldhaus, in the Swiss Alps, along with the Schatzalp in Davos, and even in Rome, to include a climbing wall which is a prominent feature of the created hotel in the film.
They also “built places with the camera in mind,” she recounted, “to demonstrate that a real architectural space can become somewhere different in space and time through cinema. In fact this is the reason why I was glad to propose to Paolo the gymnasium scene at the Aquarium Romano, which is the site of the Association of Italian Architects in Rome.”
The gym scene is notable for its baths, and a scene with stunning Romanian actress Madalina Ghenea, playing “Miss Universe.” It’s the kind of fictional, surreal hotel attracting interesting people from all over the globe, giving the two old friends time to revisit one other aspect of “youth” before the film’s somber conclusion.
Ferrario herself originally trained as an architect, so using real architecture in the service of the unreal, or surreal, comes naturally to her. She appreciates a similar sensibility in her director: “Working with Paolo is always a challenge, but he knows very well what he wants, knows and asks the designer to compose with him from small to large scale.”
The final scene of the film is set in a London concert hall, as Caine’s character returns to the conductor’s podium one last time. “The last scene was an important choice, taken together, to have our orchestra play, immersed in a white setting in order to underline the emotional moment our main character is living.”
“To me the white is the void, the silence which gives space to the most beautiful moment after a concert, the moment just before the applause, when the notes resound the past and are still present and open to the future.”
And so the film ends on an up beat, if you will, poised before its own “final” notes, leaving us in that very void that Ferrario refers to.