Film Review #164: Youth Without Youth
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Cast: Tim Roth, Alexandra Maria Lara, Bruno Ganz
“He must have signed a three-picture deal,” mused my friend during the first moments at a Sunday matinee of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening, which opens with a rolling, industrial-strength sky that makes you uneasy right away. “Great production values and this cast – after the beating he took the last couple times out, he couldn’t make a film this expensive again so soon otherwise.”
M. Night Shyamalan is no Francis Ford Coppola. But four of us were there at Sunday’s matinee because we’ve found his films worth following and that over-rode the cool skittishness common now among reviewers toward his work, beginning with disappointment in Unbreakable (2000) and reaching pitched hostility with The Village (2004). I’ve always thought the trouble with The Village was mostly a bad advertising campaign that tried to sell something more ambitious as a straight monster film.
The trouble with Youth Without Youth – which opened theatrically last December for a brief 11-week run and has now been out on DVD about a month – is that for many critics, Francis Ford Coppola is no Francis Ford Coppola anymore either. Even if he takes a decade off, it’s hard to start fresh. Earlier this week, for example, network TV further enshrined the preferred “real” Coppola with the American Film Institute special, 10 Top 10, naming his Godfather films, I and II, made in the early 70s, among the best three gangster films ever made (Scorsese’s Goodfellas was second). So Coppola’s first movie since The Rainmaker (1997) – unless you count uncredited work on Walter Hill’s Supernova in 2000 – provoked some downright anger. Coppola self-finances and produces now, so he’s not bound by “three-picture deals” nor protected by diluted blame. Reviewers have called Youth Without Youth a self-indulgent mish-mash of New Age fad philosophies, the evident result of a mid-life crisis, even “a misery to watch.” (As an aside, the plot re-caps some of them offer in print suggest some lazy watching habits too, miserable or not.)
Youth Without Youth is not so much demanding as unexpected – a sort of Indiana Jones Meets Starting Out in the Evening. Visually and narratively, it’s absorbing. Coppola himself calls it “small and personal, not autobiographical.” Fair enough. So this is not Apocalypse Now re-treaded yet again. In hankering after the easy security of fixed categories, you’d miss Coppola’s still brilliant (and often drenchingly lovely) framing, Walter Murch’s nearly perfect editing, and a set of remarkably nuanced performances (including the first time I’ve ever had much sympathy for a Tim Roth character).
Based on the Romanian writer Mircea Eliade’s 1976 novella of the same title, Youth Without Youth relates the story of Dominic Matei (Tim Roth), an elderly academic linguist in a provincial – here, that would mean “backwater” – Romanian city a ways from the capital of Bucharest who reaches a personal crisis in 1938. German Nazis have occupied his country. He has never rid himself of the loss over 40 years before of his first love, Laura (Alexandra Maria Lara), who died in childbirth after leaving him because his obsession with his work had made him so distant. In despair, the old man now determines to travel to the capital and kill himself, having decided he can never finish his life’s work, an exploration of the origins of language – “the first spark of consciousness itself.”
Barely out of the train station, Matei is struck by lightning, which for this story makes that “first spark” literal and transforms intellectual argument into human terms. Miraculously, Matei survives. Unaccountably, he then flourishes, experiencing a surge in his language studies and recovering, sometimes comically, his youth and potency under the fatherly, thoughtful care of Dr. Stanciulescu (Bruno Ganz). Stanciulescu arranges his escape to Switzerland when a Nazi doctor wants to “borrow” Matei for his own gruesome experiments, also involving electricity.
If Matei barely survives the spark of consciousness, Coppola’s film certainly asks whether humanity as a whole has done so well, torn by language and thought from our animal being. Matei, after all, has had a lifetime of preparation for that transporting jump-start. (One of the pleasures of Roth’s portrayal is that his rejuvenated Matei still moves like an old man, still retains a certain gravity of demeanor that embodies precisely the title.) Still, possibilities of Frankensteinian wrong turns – scientifically, personally, politically – tinge his story and his time as much as fleeting glimpses of spiritual transcendence. In one scene, Matei imagines a chat with his “double” while stretched supine and nearly naked beside a horizontal mirror and you think you may have seen this figure before. Yes, it’s Hans Holbein’s Dead Christ in the Tomb, suggested by some to depict Christ’s own contemplation, the night before the Crucifixtion, of his double and the rapid physical disintegration he’ll meet in death.
What awaits those less prepared? In Switzerland, Matei encounters Veronica (also played by Lara) while hiking in a mountain wood. Some reviewers assume a neat and literal correspondence – that Veronica is simply Laura returned – but I think Coppola leaves this open, and wisely. Also struck by lightning, Veronica emerges disheveled and distraught from a forest cave, speaking ancient Sanskrit, which Matei knows. They embark on trips to India, locating the cave in which Veronica’s ancient life ended - Matei finds her bones - and to the coast of Malta, where she re-lives even older lifetimes. A point comes where Matei leaves her, since his presence and the work he’s doing in recording her life-times takes grievous toll. Whereas he’s grown younger, Veronica begins to age rapidly. The work he has despaired of finishing is less important than this single life, even in the face of his discovery – which has spanned the cosmos – that any single life is only a temporary container.
Coppola’s now in Buenos Aires filming Tetro, a story of Italian immigrants in Argentina. I’m glad he’s back.
This review appeared in the 6/19/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that did not enjoy theatrical release in Central New York and older films of enduring worth.