Eugene Weekly : Movies : 2.14.08


A World of His Own
Elliptical Coppola movie doesn’t strike gold

YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH: Written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Based on the novella by Mircea Eliade. Cinematography, Mihai Malaimare Jr. Music, Osvaldo Golijov. Starring Tim Roth, Alexandra Maria Lara and Bruno Ganz. Sony Pictures Classics, 2007. R. 124 minutes.

Alexandra Pirici as Woman in Room 6 in Youth Without Youth

Several years ago, Francis Ford Coppola was frustrated with a screenplay he couldn’t finish when a friend, helping with the work, sent him some “intriguing” lines from Mircea Eliade’s Youth Without Youth. The director, curious, decided to read the whole book, and identified with the main character, Dominic Matei, who complains of his inability to finish his life’s work.

We’ve all met ourselves in fiction. But Coppola took his appreciation a step further, finding in Youth the film he would next create. He went about it on his own, filming in Romania, where the story was set, and making a low-budget film he could finance without the studio system. It’s all a very interesting story, this tale of a famed director working on his own to reinvigorate his career. In fact, it’s a considerably more interesting story than the resulting film.

Youth‘s center, Dominic Matei (Tim Roth), is at the outset an old man, tottering and perhaps a bit senile, still frustrated by his unwritten book. Long ago, his obsession with his work drove away the love of his life, Laura (Alexandra Maria Lara). Dominic is possibly suicidal, but that — and everything — changes when he’s struck by lightning while crossing a street. He wakes in a hospital, in what his doctor says is a larval stage, wrapped in bandages that are removed more quickly than anyone would expect. Dominic more than heals; he comes out of his cocoon as a much younger man, one with plenty of hair, new teeth?and a superhuman intellect.

This intellectual X-Man is briefly pursued by Nazis, who want the secrets of his improved body and mind, and helped by a doctor who tells Dominic to document his thoughts and memories. The film is thick with philosophical commentary, like a lecture packed crazily into what is already a dense narrative in which people loop around on each other. The now-young Dominic re-meets Laura, but not Laura; now she’s Veronica, who is in turn affected by a storm. She regresses into the mind of an Indian woman, and then back to the Egyptians, the Sumerians and farther still. Rather too conveniently, Dominic’s life’s work involves the origins of language. But Veronica’s visions cost her her youth, and Dominic must choose between her company or her life.

All this, and I’ve yet to mention the many conversations Roth’s Dominic has with himself, or rather with his double, who is Dominic and is not Dominic at the same time; he’s the other Dominic, the pure intellect to the heart, or simply a different part of his consciousness. Of course, the entire thing might also be a dream of the aged Dominic, though his final speech seems to imply this isn’t so. But what is so is up for debate. Coppola, in the film’s production notes, speaks passionately about his story, but he seems so wrapped up in the ideas and philosophies offered that he forgets to extend a hand to the viewer.

The ideas within the film might be interesting, but the ways in which they’re presented don’t work with the medium; reading Eliade’s book, at your own pace and through the lens of your own imagination, would be far more fascinating than listening to Roth sneer about realities. Despite a gorgeous Romanian setting and an occasional elegant scene, Youth feels distant and aloof, stagnant and impenetrable. The characters are mouthpieces for ideas, and if we can’t care about the characters, what do we care what they have to say? “It can also be an educational opportunity to learn more about Eastern philosophy,” the director says of his film. But it feels like an educational opportunity first and a film second.   

Youth Without Youth opens Friday, Feb. 15 at the Bijou.