The origin of language. Time. Fate. Existence. Reincarnation.
These are big issues--ones that intrigue people like Romanian linguistics professor Dominic Matei (Tim Roth) and Mircea Eliade, the professor of religion who wrote Youth without Youth.
I haven't read Eliade's novella, but I have read and enjoyed his thoughtful consideration of sacred and secular space in "The Sacred and the Profane," a scholarly treatise on man's religious impulse. And I've read Eliade's "Myth of the Eternal Return," which contemplates, among other things, what it means to exist in time. "Youth without Youth" is a fictionalized reconsideration of that book. But while I found Eliade's essays to be lucid and highly readable, I have to say that "Youth without Youth" tries too hard to be profound and provocative. What could have been an interesting test-case of metaphysics turns out to be a dull, slow-moving glacier of a movie instead.
That's too bad, because "Youth without Youth" is the first major film from Francis Ford Coppola since "The Rainmaker" (1997), and it was financed by profits from the Coppola vineyards. In this case, he couldn't reap what he had sown. Though Coppola clearly was fascinated by the ontological questions at the heart of Eliade's fiction and while he constructs a film that's beautiful to watch, it's also pretentious, tedious, and poorly reasoned. The narrative is so disjointed that it feels like two separate films cobbled into one. I've heard it described as an art-house film which demands a great deal of its audience, a difficult film which is so mentally challenging that the average person can't understand it. Well, as rude (or arrogant) as it seems, I have to say that the emperor has no clothes. "Youth without Youth" is more muddle than puzzle. It begins with a clichéd plot about Nazis trying to track down the professor to learn his secrets, and ends like a kind of time-traveling "Sybil." And trust me, it's not nearly as exciting as those comparisons make it seem.
Long, lingering takes and melodramatic moments punctuate this film far more than the few elements of intrigue or peril. Mihai Malaimare, Jr.'s cinematography is wonderfully poetic, as is original music from Osvaldo Golijov, and "Youth without Youth" is visually sweeping. But Coppola says he added a few elements to Eliade's short fiction, including sections on Buddhist thought, and what begins as poetry soon turns as pretentious as a poetry reading.
It's not the fault of the actors, mind you. Tim Roth does a fine job as Dominic, the professor we're introduced to in 1938 when, as a near-senile man in his 70's who weeps at the realization that his life is over, Dominic is struck by lighting--his body lifted into the air and badly charred. The umbrella he was carrying is a flaming skeleton. He, meanwhile, is taken to a hospital where doctors wrap him in a full-body bandage that may as well have been a cocoon--for what emerges is a man that the giggling nurses can't believe is a septuagenarian. That's because a strange phenomenon has happened. Rather than killing him, the bolt of lightning somehow reset his clock, reversing the aging process so that he becomes a man who looks to be in his mid-30's instead. Old teeth spat out give way to new "baby teeth" and new hair grows. He's a marvel who, of course, becomes of great interest to the doctors in Bucharest . . . and as a result, draws the interest of the Nazis the country has aligned itself with. It turns out that one of Hitler's top scientists, Josef Rudolf (André Hennicke), has been conducting experiments using high-voltage electrical charges because he suspected something like this could happen. Now, Rudolf wants to "examine" Dominic.
In a way, it's a pretty standard plot that has Dominic going underground, learning to live like a secret agent in order to evade the Nazis. But this double life passes by so quickly that you'd swear you missed something. A professor (Bruno Ganz) disappears almost as quickly.
In flashbacks we see hints of Dominic's older (younger) life, his past love Laura. And as he lies in bed, recovering, we get the familiar gimmick of a double-something we've seen since the first cartoons that had little devils and angels battling for a character's attentions. Is it the embodiment of conscience? A suggestion that the self has been split in two by lightning, the old self and the new, with the new really being the old? Even Coppola doesn't provide a satisfactory answer in his commentary. That doubling continues throughout the rest of the film--though thankfully there's at least just one other Dominic, instead of the multiple Jack Sparrows that "Pirates of the Caribbean" fans had to endure in the third installment.
Where the film seems to get way too heavy-handed and go off into live-action "Yellow Submarine" land is when a second umbrella gets zapped by lightning and lies flaming in obvious duplicate symbolism. Only this time it's a woman named Veronica who reminds him of Laura (or IS it Laura--Alexandra Maria Lara plays both parts). Lightning has the opposite effect on her, aging her but sending her mind back in time to, we suppose, previous existences. She suddenly starts speaking in Sanskrit and other ancient languages, which, to a professor of linguistics searching for the Fountain of Language, is like talking dirty, it's such a turn-on. Next thing you know, we're off on a "Passage to India" quest to find a cave that she may or may not remember. In the meantime, the war has ended (as we're clumsily informed with newspaper headlines that thud across the screen, not just once, but all through the film) and we've been spending some 14 years with Dominic without really knowing it. One minute he's evading the Nazis and Herr Rudolf, and the next minute he's taking care of his gender counterpart after her lightning strike.
Is it deep? Is it far out? Is it provocative?
Somewhat. But not nearly as much as you'd think. As I said, it tries too hard to be profound, and Coppola's additions make Eliade's ontological burgoo just another case of too many cooks.
Visually, the 1080p (AVC/MPEG-4) picture looks stunning. Though it's a dark and murky film with color washes that add emotional texture to the scenes rather than splashes of realistic color, the level of detail is superb. Black levels might be a little low in some scenes, but for the most part it's a great-looking picture. You notice this especially when characters are backlit and you can see wisps of hair as sharply as if they were under a microscope. "Youth without Youth" is presented in 2.35:1 aspect ratio.
Coppola and Co. went with an English or French Dolby True HD 5.1 soundtrack, and it does a nice job of rendering the dialogue with clarity and also showcasing the original musical score. There's a nice wide spread across the speakers, natural use of the surround speakers, and a good timbre that makes the audio seem both clear and resonant. Subtitles are in English, English SDH, and French.
Coppola's commentary is full of measured remarks that mostly touch on the action on the screen and what he was thinking or trying to accomplish. About a third of the way through the film he begins talking more about comparisons between Eliade's text and his film, and tries his hand at interpretations. But he stops way short of discussing these in any depth, probably because as a director he's conditioned to keep moving and not fall behind as the scenes progress. When, for example, he tries to tell us about what he was trying to suggest in one scene, he briefly mentions the Buddhist concept of there being four ways of looking--so, not so, so and not so combined, neither so nor not so--but doesn't go any further than that. He also doesn't refer back to previous films, and so anyone hoping for a comparative/retrospective approach will be mildly disappointed.
The only other bonus features on this 50-gig disc are several under-20 (minute) making-of documentaries on behind-the-scenes with Coppola, the music of "Youth without Youth," and the make-up process. They're average to slightly above-average.
Watching a film by Francis Ford Coppola based on a Mircea Eliade story about a guy struck by lightning who becomes young again and is sought after by the Nazis, I was shocked to discover that the word coming into my mind in too many instances was dull. Maybe it's a case of high expectations, but "Youth without Youth" really disappointed me.