Rating: Rated M
Youth Without Youth is set in Rumania in 1938, and based on a novella written by philosopher and historian of religions Mircea Eliade. Written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, the master filmmaker’s first film in ten years is a dreamlike fairytale which follows the strange adventures of Dominic Matei (Tim Roth), a 70 year-old linguist and philosopher, who is one day struck by lightning while running across a road in Bucharest.
Hospitalised because of his burns, and swathed in bandages like an Egyptian mummy, no one expects Dominic to live, least of all his doctor, Professor Stanciuescu (played by Wings of Desire angel Bruno Ganz). But not only does Dominic recover and live, he does so miraculously regenerated as a man of 40, with a full head of hair, new grown teeth, and superior brain power.
From this surreal beginning, Youth Without Youth moves into the territory of World War 2 spy novelists Philip Kerr and Alan Furst, as Dominic seeks to elude Nazi scientists who, with the support of Romanian pro-Nazi nationalists, pursue him in the hope that a new species of übermenschen (supermen) might be born by studying the mutant effects on humans of high voltage electricity.
After a passionate affair with a Nazi femme fatale (Alexandra Pirici), Dominic flees to Switzerland where he sits out the war, along with his doppelgänger (or double, a by-product of his magical transformation), with whom he engages in angst-filled conversations about the nature of reality .
Thus with nods to both film and literature (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray, and Dostoyevsky’s The Double), Youth Without Youth plunges at last into the very heart of Coppola/Eliade’s esoteric tale - Dominic’s eternal love for Veronica (Alexandra Maria Lara), which transcends time.
Dominic and Veronica first meet in the 1890s, but like Tristan and Isolde, they are separated by fate. When they meet again in the 1950s, Veronica is the young and vivacious Lara, a carefree young woman touring with her friend in the Swiss Alps.
Like Dominic, Veronica/Lara survives an electrical storm and experiences transformation, but in Lara’s case she is ‘reborn’ as a conduit for reincarnated souls who speak through her in ancient tongues, which Dominic the linguist and philosopher hopes will provide the key to his lifelong search for both the origin of language and human consciousness.
Like Dante’s love for Beatrice, Veronica/Lara represents Dominic’s search for a pathway to the eternal ‘now’, conceived by Eliade as the moment when historical time is transcended, and through enlightenment the individual becomes united with the whole. However, Lara’s new power brings grave fears for her safety, and Dominic is forced to choose between his love for Lara, and his desire to uncover the secret to life’s mystery.
Although sumptuously produced, Youth Without Youth is a disappointing journey into dreams, myths and the search for ultimate knowledge, that is at times laboured and confusing.
Coppola attempts to capture complex and abstruse ideas through cinema, which is often at its best when stories are reduced simply to myth or poetry - when images speak and words are unnecessary. Cocteau achieved this to a supreme degree with his Orpheus trilogy, as did Fellini with 8 1/2 and Antonioni with L’avventura.
By contrast, Coppola’s take on Eliade’s tale seems overly preoccupied with the didactic nature of philosophy, to the extent that the viewer is left grappling to understand these ideas rationally, rather than be drawn into understanding through the characters and their actions. And this is reflected in Tim Roth’s acting, which is at times mannered, as if the actor himself is unsure of the character he is playing, or what he is meant to convey.
Nonetheless, Youth Without Youth marks a fascinating departure from this great filmmaker’s usual work, and it’s anyone’s guess where cinema will take him next.
Youth Without Youth fails perhaps because the best poetry, myths and fables capture in images those thoughts and ideas that are not readily reducible to language.
In this sense Youth Without Youth can be seen best as the product of a master filmmaker struggling to create a new language for himself in a medium that still has a great deal to teach him about capturing deams.
Mrs Jan Epstein is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.