Dir: Francis Ford Coppola. Rom/Fr/It. 2007. 124mins
Ten years after the polished, anonymous professionalism of The Rainmaker, Francis Ford Coppola returns with an epic, magic realist tale of miraculous rejuvenation. Anyone who hoped that life might imitate art will be sorely disappointed by Youth Without Youth. This is an amateur production in the true sense of the word; a film made by a lover of film craft and language unimpeded by the constraints of commercial concerns or narrative conventions.
It may have moments of great beauty and tenderness but it overall it is a jumble of half-baked metaphysical musings and disjointed story threads that mainstream audiences will find as unfathomable as Kurtz's mumblings in the jungles of Apocalypse Now. Admirers of the director may be sufficient to attract some business on a strictly specialist, minimal arthouse release with sturdier long term prospects on dvd where film buffs and academics can ponder over its meaning at their own leisure.
Based on the 1980 novella by Mircae Eliade and shot largely in Romania, Youth Without Youth mixes a Twilight Zone-style premise with a lengthy philosophical debate on eternal love, the origins of language and the multidimensionality of human consciousness. Tim Roth carries every turn and digression with a stalwart performance as Dominic Matei, an elderly professor of linguistics. In the Romania of 1938, the 70 year-old Matei worries that his life is drawing to a close whilst his life's work is far from completed. Coppola's affinity with his dilemma seems self-evident. In the middle of an Easter Day storm he is struck by lightning but survives and appears to have been rejuvenated. He now has the body and appearance of a man in his 30s.
He is an object of fascination for the medical profession and Professor Stanciulescu (Ganz) and also attracts the attention of the Nazis. He spends the war years on the run in neutral Switzerland and develops a doppelganger who advises him and argues with him. Matt Damon has a brief, one-scene role as a Life magazine reporter Ted Jones Jr who fails to interest Matei in telling his story to the world. Haunted by his lost love Laura (Lara), Matei later meets Veronika (also Lara) who survives an accident but now believes herself to be Rupini, a 7th century disciple of Chandrakirti. As Veronika regresses, she starts speaking in ever more obscure languages and could be the key to completing his researches.
The film certainly illustrates Coppola's fluency in the language of film and seems to have been particularly influence by German cinema both past and present. His use of light and shadow in this digital feature is reminiscent of the Expressionist period, some scenes are as stylised as Fassbinder's Querelle and the globe-trotting plot inevitably suggests Wim Wenders at his most incomprehensible. Film buffs will find it a treasure trove of clues and influences. When Matei flees from a Nazi pursuer and dives into the dark shadows of a side alley it is like The Third Man, when Veronika is possessed by Rupini it could be a moment from The Exorcist, the scenes with lost love Laura are as romantic as Ophuls, the notion of one actress playing multiple incarnations of a true love is like Deborah Kerr's presence in Powell and Pressburger's The Life And Death of Colonel Blimp, etc The knowing references sometimes go too far. When Veronika and Matei arrive in Malta she asks him what kind of birds they have on the island and naturally he replies: 'That's the Maltese Falcon'.
The film is Coppola's attempt to return to the freedoms he enjoyed as a young filmmaker in the 1960s. It could be a student film right down to the cheap, Corman-like special-effects and has the feel of something that was made up as they went along. There is an appealing playfulness in this approach but it is short-lived. The viewer is left baffled as Coppola's catherine wheel of big ideas fires off in all directions and the intellectual ambitions of the film suffocate its emotional impact. Eventually, the tale of rebirth and regeneration moves full circle to a beginnning that is also an end, and a setting that is 1938 but also 1969 and a banal conclusion that in the many lives and times we inhabit all we need is love.
American Zoetrope (US)
SRG Atelier (Romania)
BIM Distribuzione (Italy)
Pathe Pictures International
(44) 20 7323 5151
Francis Ford Coppola
Francis Ford Coppola
based on the novella byMircae Eliade
Mihai Malamare Jr
Alexandra Maria Lara