Youth Without Youth
Francis Ford Coppola - yes, that one - has made his first film in ten years, called "Youth Without Youth," which is an adaptation of the Romanian religious philosopher Mircea Eliade's novella of the same name. And before I get to the film, I think you should know that Eliade was two things: first, he was a fascist who loved Hitler and the Romanian Iron Guard, the fascist military organization; and second, he was the author of a wonderful children's book called "Once Upon a Pirate Ship," which my wife and I and our children loved to read.
Okay, that's out of the way. Make of it what you will. Now to the film. In the year 1938 a 70-year-old man, played by Tim Roth, is walking down the street in a Bucharest rainstorm when he's struck by lightning, burned to a crisp, but survives. And when he begins his recovery he turns out to have become his thirty-year-old self once again. The film doesn't try to explain this; it simply accepts it. Not only that, he has powers that no human ever had; he was a linguist but now he understands every human tongue; and even more than that, he merely has to pass his hand over a book to get everything written in it. Okay so far?
This man, named Dominic Matei, once had a lover named Laura (played by Alexandra Maria Lara), who left him because he was so attached to his books. We're told that she died young. But now, he is a medical marvel and Hitler's scientists want to take him to Germany and try out some medical experiments on him; he escapes to Switzerland, where he now meets Veronica, also played by the same actress who played Laura. In fact, they meet cute, as Hollywood would say; that is, she also gets hit by lightning and acquires an incredible knowledge of ancient languages - Sumerian, Babylonian, Egyptian, back to the very first ur-language ever used.
They become lovers, but as Dominic reminds her, he is now actually 88 years old, and who knows what's what. I've left out some important things here, including a scientific trip to a cave in India where Veronica once used to meditate; don't ask.
The point is, this is both an amazing film and an amazing failure - it is a stunning act of invention by Coppola, working from Eliade's novella, and yet it is a failure as a film. In spite of Coppola's mastery of framing and shot selection, and a lovely performance by Tim Roth - and let us not forget the film was edited by that master Walter Murch - the film simply doesn't have enough in it intellectually or emotionally to make it more than a curiosity. You end up feeling that Coppola, now 70 himself, is trying for some kind of renewed youth. That doesn't mean you shouldn't see it; it means you should go with an open mind, letting the film come to you on its own terms; take the beauty, forget the attempt at intellecualizing, and come away hoping that Coppola's next film gets this one out of his system.