After a 10-year layoff during which his primary preoccupations were winemaking, running a literary magazine, and the operation of two resort properties in Belize, Francis Ford Coppola is back, and the good news is his audacity is fully intact. This is no mean achievement, since Coppola is one of the most audacious filmmakers American cinema has ever produced.
So iconic are his signature works that it isn’t necessary to do more than mention their titles to establish Coppola’s claim on greatness. Every serious filmgoer already knows the first two Godfather films and Apocalypse Now so well he or she can likely revisit them simply by closing his or her eyes. But look elsewhere in the Coppola canon, and there are films equally great ( The Conversation ); nearly as good ( Rumblefish, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Tucker: The Man and His Dream ); and movies misunderstood in their day and overdue for revisitation ( One From the Heart, The Cotton Club ).
Coppola’s latest is Youth Without Youth, a ravishing eccentricity based on a novella by theologian and novelist Mircea Eliades. The fulsome, magical-realist plot concerns Dominic Matei (a subtle and controlled Tim Roth), an elderly and suicidal professor of linguistics who comes unstuck in time after being struck by lightning on a Romanian thoroughfare in 1938. Dominic is rejuvenated by the blast, awakening as a man in his late 30s and becoming a scientific curiosity thanks to the case history published by his primary doctor (Bruno Ganz). As he emerges from hospitalization and embarks on a voyage that will span decades and continents, Dominic evolves into a sort of philosophical and semiotic variation on Forrest Gump —a man moving amid decisive historical and spiritual events the way an umbrella moves through a rainstorm: impacted but ultimately unchanged.
Nazi surgeons attempt to kidnap Dominic to learn the secret of his regeneration, and he is seduced by a beautiful German agent known only as “the Woman in Room Six” (Alexandra Pirici). Touring Switzerland after the war, Dominic meets Veronica (Alexandra Maria Lara), a female tourist with a malady that compliments his own: She is the reincarnation of a lineage of women stretching back to an era before language, and each personality comes forward to communicate with Dominic about her vanished world.
One of the more intriguing aspects about this odd but compelling work is that it contains offbeat themes and even plot devices Coppola has grappled with before in what many considered to be his least personal movies. In the widely (and justly) derided comedy Jack, Robin Williams plays a child who is aging forward in time too quickly—a reverse image of the predicament of Dominic Matei. In the frequently moving commercial potboiler Peggy Sue Got Married, Kathleen Turner gets her second chance at youth, just as Dominic Matei does.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula —one of the most successful of Coppola’s late films both artistically and commercially—seemed at the time of its release to use reincarnation as a plot device to propel what was essentially a gothic romance. In fact, Coppola’s Dracula can now be seen as a test run at many of Youth Without Youth ’s concerns, sharing with the newer film not only a quasi-immortal Romanian protagonist but a sincere belief that all great loves are in many ways the same love—the lover being the constant, rather than the beloved.
It would be difficult to position Youth Without Youth in the rarefied elevation where Coppola’s very best work belongs, and some critics may be tempted to punish this sincere and offbeat movie as a result. How desperately unfair this would be. Only a handful of films by anyone else in cinema history deserve to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Godfather II and Apocalypse Now, but many of the same pleasures those two touchstones of world cinema contain—visual panache, daring technique, terrific performances from a cast that mixes established actors and relative unknowns—are all on offer here.
If there is a deep substantive criticism to level at Youth Without Youth, it is that Coppola, at his best one of the rare American filmmakers capable of appealing to the arthouse bunch and the mass audience simultaneously, seems to have given up for the moment on the rawer pleasures of mass entertainment. Youth Without Youth is often cryptic and even obtuse; its narrative is unapologetically elliptical, and it asks viewers to take tricky structural leaps, sometimes into meticulously constructed blind alleys where they’re left to grope about in the dark. At times, viewing this film is like watching pure metaphor, without the consoling graces of context and character identification some moviegoers have grown used to in our spoon-fed times. In one sense, Coppola is complimenting his viewers by assuming they’re as adventurous as he is. But there will likely be more than a few who will resist taking this weird if rewarding journey, even with so companionable a guide.
While the crowd-pleasing Coppola of the Godfather era might have viewed that as a professional and artistic tragedy, one senses that the Coppola of Youth Without Youth is more than willing to shed the more cautious elements of his fan-base in pursuit of his own reckless vision. That passion alone is worth the price of admission, and a primary reason why Youth Without Youth is a clear indication that Coppola is as far from a spent force as any world-class filmmaker can be.
Cast: Tim Roth and Alexandra Maria Lara
Director/Screenwriter/Producer: Francis Ford Coppola
Genre: Fantasy drama
Rated: R for some sexuality, nudity and a brief disturbing image
Running time: 124 min.
Release date: December 14, 2007 ltd.