Youth Without Youth

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Cos Aelenei/Sony Pictures Classics and Pathé Films
Francis Ford Coppola/United States-Germany-Italy-France-Romania 2007

Even though he made his name working within and forever revolutionizing one of the most iconic of all movie genres, Francis Ford Coppola has always been more of an independent-minded filmmaker than one might think. So, it’s fitting that Youth Without Youth marks his return to directing after a 10-year absence that saw the rise to filmmaking prominence of his daughter Sofia, the creation of his Zoetrope: All-Story literary magazine and the further evolution of his wine business. Too bad, then, that this defiantly unconventional picture, an adaptation of the magical-realist novella by Mircea Eliade, proves such a mess, albeit a visually splendid one.

The narrative concerns one Dominic Matei (Tim Roth), an elderly Romanian man who gets struck by lighting on Easter Sunday 1938. Despite being burnt beyond recognition and effectively left for dead by his doctor (Bruno Ganz) at the local hospital, a miracle happens. Not only is he not killed, his wounds heal at a stunningly rapid rate, he grows a new set of teeth and watches dumbstruck as his wrinkles fade, his grey hair turns brown and he regains his lost youthful vigor. Once given this remarkable chance, the university scholar who has been unable to complete his life’s work – a study of languages – and still smarts over his long lost love Laura (Alexandra Maria Lara) sets out to fulfill all his regretted missed opportunities.

This involves running from the Nazis and meeting Veronica, who seems to somehow recall Laura, as she should: Lara plays her as well. When she starts suddenly, ominously spurting out Sanskrit and calling herself Rupini you’d think that might be an inhibitor to a budding relationship, but it’s not, as it draws him to her even more strongly. This stuff plays as flimsily as it sounds. Coppola’s attempt to lend the production a metaphysical aura backfires. The allegory does not resonate and Coppola fails to keep his audience from taking the story at literal, face value. The ideas he posits about aging and the futility of recapturing one’s lost youth must play better on Eliade’s page, in a less immediately visceral medium more apt for intricate philosophical digressions. Here, in failing to provoke thought and reflection he leaves us with little beyond an overwrought, bifurcated narrative that transitions from a jumpy first half to a stagnant conclusion, in which most of the action plays out in an over the top theatrical fashion within a constrained setting.

Also, the filmmaker overdoses on the visual symbolism, no matter how evocatively photographed. And make no mistake about it the movie, shot by cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr., is lovely to look at. Coppola fills his carefully composed, richly colored frame with lingering top shots, inverted images and a color scheme that views the depicted world through stark palettes of blue and gold. Flowers, lightning and literature play important roles, not to mention Dominic’s omnipresent doppelganger. Yet these touches keep the film chained to the bonds of its New Age quackery and the sense that it exists to impart an idea, or series of ideas, rather than providing a tangible cinematic experience. Youth Without Youth remains engulfed in the hokey, warmed over aesthetic, in which the characters fall victim to the fantastically pretty, domineering visual choices while being subsequently buried by some spectacularly inane storytelling.

© 2007 Robert Levin. All rights reserved.

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