Director: Francis Ford Coppola
An existential meditation on metaphysics, evolution, doppelgangers, reincarnation and all of the ethical and philosophical questions that go with it isn’t exactly the most audience-friendly topic of cinematic contemplation. Perhaps knowing that most studios wouldn’t be interested and he’d only be playing to a very select audience, writer/director Francis Ford Coppola, working from the Mircea Eliade novella, raised the funds to finance his return to filmmaking after a ten year absence with profits from his California vineyard (IMDb). Despite a gorgeous trailer that teases audiences into believing it to be a war film, we’re quickly thrust back into the past with an old-fashioned credit sequence that sets the mood of the ponderous Youth Without Youth which, beginning in 1938 introduces us to a seventy year old Romanian linguist whose suicidal plans are interrupted when he is struck by lightning. Instead of being killed instantly, Dominic Matei (Tim Roth) baffles the medical staff during his post-burn treatment when inexplicably he begins to not only heal the flesh burns but also grows a new set of teeth and is soon transformed into a much more youthful man. Does lightning serve as the fountain of youth? While it seems like an easily dismissible proposition, the film grows steadily more confusing and complicated for the first mind boggling hour that tests viewer’s patience (so much that the film was annihilated by prominent critics’ negative reviews) but we become hooked when a love story develops as Dominic meets a Swiss tourist named Veronica who appears to be a reincarnated version of his lost love Laura.
While it’s impossible to completely forgive the film its pretentious air that comes off at times as smug and elitist, the wonder of Roth’s difficult performance along with the majestic beauty of the Independent Spirit Award nominated cinematography by Mihai Malaimare Jr. and clever usage of visual trickery and effects recalls vintage American works The Third Man and Notorious and echoes some of the themes and philosophical contemplation of international classics such as Last Year in Marienbad and Solaris. Although I can’t wholly recommend the film that may have benefited from a tighter narrative and editing to shorten its overly long running time, Francis Ford Coppola hasn’t lost the ability to dazzle even in misguided attempts like Youth Without Youth that may actually do well to be a stunning background visual at a low-key party, shared perhaps with a bottle of Coppola’s wine.