Youth Without Youth (2008) / Drama-Fantasy
MPAA Rated: R for some sexuality, nudity, language, and disturbing images
Running time: 124 min
Cast: Tim Roth, Alexandra Maria Lara, Bruno Ganz, Andre Hennicke, Marcel Iures
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Screenplay: Francis Ford Coppola (based on the novella by Mircea Eliade)
Francis Ford Coppola (The Rainmaker, The Godfather Part II) gets into the director's chair for the first time in ten years (not counting his uncredited cleanup work on the 2000 turkey, Supernova), for a small-scale, self-financed, esoteric art film. Based on the novella by Romanian philosopher and religious historian Mircea Eliade, Coppola has gone on to say that he made the film from a personal perspective rather than try to entertain the masses, which explains the film's inability to connect with audiences at large. Shooting over 170 hours of footage, Coppola was able to get the film down to a conventional two hour length after getting some outside assistance, which resulted in quite a dense work. Philosophical questions on aging, youth, dreams, love, life, reincarnation, and death are all in the mix, and outside of film scholars, philosophers, religious studies pursuers, and those who love films that ask you to derive your own meanings to, I'd be unwilling to lay down a recommendation. Metaphysical explorations and an entertaining time aren't always a certainty.
The story starts of prior to World War II, as we follow an elderly linguistics scholar, Dominic Matei (Roth, Dark Water), bemoaning the fact that he has yet to write his great work on the origin of language, and also never recovered from the loss of the love of the one woman that ever truly mattered to him, Laura (Lara, Downfall), due to his pursuits. Dominic's whole life changes, literally, when he is struck by lightning, leaving his body charred and resulting in a trip to the hospital where he is in a cocoon-like body wrap of bandages. He emerges from this cocoon to transform back into a young man again, and more. He now can readily absorb knowledge from books without ever opening them, read and alter the thoughts of another, and move objects with his mind. He continues his pursuit of the origin of languages again, and then is thrown a curveball when he meets Victoria, another young woman who is the spitting image of his Laura, who is also suddenly struck by lightning, allowing her to channel into a former life as a famed religious philosopher, giving her the power to regress back and speak ancient languages. He can have the best of both worlds, continuing his pursuit of language while also being in the presence of the embodiment of his love, but soon must confront a familiar question when he finds he cannot continue his life's pursuit without the cost of his love for a woman.
If I wanted to seem on the right side of things as a critic, my inclination would be to give Youth without Youth a pass. It is, after all, written and directed by one of the greatest directors and producers of all time, and it is obvious from the finished product that he put a great deal of effort into it. Coppola doesn't go out of his way to explain any of the strange imagery and bizarre story turns the film takes, and I will freely admit that I probably only understood the gist of the story, not adequately getting a grasp on exactly what's going on and why. These kinds of confusing films always perplex film reviewers, as we aren't quite certain if the fact that this film is confusing is a result of the filmmaker not being able to convey a story in a way that makes sense, or if it is us who are just not deep enough thinkers to grasp the complexities of a brilliant mind. Coppola's earned the right to be vague, certainly, but I do think that, given his track record in films, especially since his creative peak in the 1970s, he's on unsure footing in an artistic piece, and has been quite fallible as a filmmaker for some time. Is it a masterwork of a genius or muddled intellectual masturbation from a filmmaker past his prime trying to be relevant again?
At the same time that it may be confusing as a standalone story, if you were to see Youth Without Youth as a creative mind at the end of his years putting up a mirror to himself and elaborate his feelings in metaphors, especially if you're familiar with Coppola, you might come away with more of an appreciation than those who choose to just follow the story as Dominic. Certainly, Eliade's story has personal resonance with the aging filmmaker, as he has kept the project near his heart for many years. Like Dominic, he's spent so much time never able to complete the work, but after receiving renewed vigor and vitality, he finds the energy to work on it again, and his pursuit taps into creative juices that had eluded him all along. Also like Dominic, the more time he spends working on it, the more taxing it is on those he loves, who want to help him realize his dreams, but the pursuit, while revitalizing him, drains so much of their energy to the point where it's just too much to ask anymore.
In the end, Coppola may have realized his dream of making this story come to life cinematically in a way that is very personal to him, but he doesn't make many attempts to include us in the equation. As a result, it's more interesting to those who seek to analyze the man behind the camera than the characters in front of it, so not many outside of students of film, Eliade historians, and those who embrace philosophical and metaphysical journeys of self-discovery will find it of particular value. Without viewing the film as a mirror -- a reflection of one person's image of truth rather than a universal truth -- Youth Without Youth is also without coherence, without substance, and without meaning to anyone but the man possessing the mirror.
©2008 Vince Leo