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Youth Without Youth
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Another One From The Heart"
5 stars

If there is one thing that Francis Ford Coppola has conclusively demonstrated throughout his long and varied career, it is that he has two wildly different filmmakers within him battling for control. One is an expert craftsman who can tell strong and engrossing stories in a straightforward and compelling manner with little muss and fuss–this is the Coppola that gave us such films as “The Godfather,” “The Outsiders,” “Peggy Sue Got Married” and “John Grisham’s The Rainmaker.” The other is a bold visionary that thrives on using every available means, or simply inventing them if they aren’t currently available, to attempt to reinvent the entire process of creating and telling a story in cinematic terms–this is the Coppola behind such controversial works as “The Godfather Part II,” “The Conversation” “Apocalypse Now,” “One From The Heart,” “Rumble Fish” and “Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” (Of course, there is a third Coppola, the one behind such inexplicable disasters as the “Life With Zoe” segment of “New York Stories” and “Jack,” but we shall be polite and not mention this one any further.) With all due respect to the former Coppola, it is the latter one whose works I prefer–I feel that Coppola is at his best when he is swinging for the fences with the kind of ambitious works that no one else would dare attempt. (If I had to make a list of my favorite Coppola films, it would be topped with those same unconventional titles that I cited above.)

Alas, that experimental Coppola has largely been absent for more than twenty-odd years–he essentially retired from active filmmaking after the release of 1997's “The Rainmaker” to build up his winemaking empire and work on new versions of “Apocalypse Now,” “One From the Heart” and “The Outsiders” and spent the decade-and-change before that making relatively ordinary films (with the exceptions of his art-house take on S.E. Hinton’s “Rumble Fish” and his wildly operatic “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”) in an attempt to wipe out the debts he accumulated in financing “One From the Heart”–but he has returned with a vengeance with his latest film, the bizarre mind-bender “Youth Without Youth.” Instead of simply resting on his laurels with a rehashing of familiar themes that would offer him an easy commercial payday, he has instead given us the kind of unconventional and defiantly uncommercial work that a filmmaker ordinarily offers up at the beginning of a career, not at an age when they about ready to hit the Lifetime Achievement Award circuit. It is a choice that probably won’t win him any new fans and will presumably befuddle the old ones but to these eyes, it is a bold achievement that is as wildly ambitious in terms of scope and narrative structure as “The Rainmaker” was ordinary.

The film opens in Bucharest on Easter Sunday, 1938 as 70-year-old Dominic Matei (Tim Roth) arrives with the plan of committing suicide by ingesting strychnine. Before he can do so, however, a freak thunderstorm comes up and Matei is struck by lightning and burned almost beyond recognition. Encased from head to toe in bandages in a hospital bed and unable to communicate, Matei reflects on the personal and professional failures that led him to want to kill himself in the first place. A brilliant scholar with a specialty in linguistics, Matei has devoted his life to studying the origin of language and its effect on human consciousness with the hopes of creating a magnum opus that will last long after he has shuffled off this mortal coil–a task that cost him the one true love of his life, his fiancee Laura (Alexandra Maria Lara), and which, despite his best efforts, is nowhere near completion because of its vast scope and the limitations brought on by age. Despite being near death when brought in to the hospital, Matei surprises everyone, especially Professor Stanciulescu (Bruno Ganz), the doctor in charge of his case, by not only recovering from his grave injuries but by now appearing to be a man in his late 30's in every way imaginable–when his teeth all fall out, it is because a brand new set of choppers are pushing their way up. Somehow, the bolt of lightning has literally given Matei a new lease on both his life and his life’s work as his new-found youth means that he now has the time to possibly finish his work after all with no after-effects to speak of. Okay, there is one small after effect–he now has an exact double that appears from time to time to offer advice on the problems at hand. Alas, the beginning of World War II is not the best time to be a walking medical oddity who seems to have somehow conquered death and after the professor publishes a series of articles on Matei in medical journals, his case piques the interest of those in the Nazi high command who are keenly interested in his condition and will do anything to obtain him, including deploying the sexy wiles of a spy known only as The Woman in Room 6 (Alexandra Pirici) in order to seduce him.

As the Nazis draw closer, Matei, with the help of the professor, slips out of Romania into neutral Switzerland and spends the next 15 years keeping to himself, working on his book and ignoring the entreaties of those who are familiar with his strange circumstances. What jolts him out of this reverie is a fateful encounter with Veronica, a beautiful young woman who is the spitting image of Laura (and portrayed once again by Lara) who, after her own encounter with a freak storm, is discovered hiding in a cave and speaking a mysterious language that Matei determines to be Sanskrit. It seems that her body may be housing the spirit of Rupini, a follower of the 7th-century Buddhist scholar Chandrakirti and when this revelation is announced, it gives her unwanted public notoriety and to avoid the limelight, she and Matei, who have become lovers, depart for the relative isolation of Malta. Once there, Veronica begins undergoing a series of episodes in which she appears to be regressing further and further back into time and begins speaking in increasingly older and rarer languages. For Matei, who is diligently recording these episodes, these regressions are a godsend for his work and if she continues to go further back into time, she may come across the very origins of language and allow him to finally complete his work. The problem, though, is that these episodes quickly begin to take a huge physical toll on Veronica and Matei is forced to choose between abandoning his life’s work or his last chance at personal happiness.

Although “Youth Without Youth” is not an original Coppola creation–it is loosely based on a novella from Romanian author Mircea Eliade–the ideas and themes that are present so closely parallel key events and interests in his own life and work that it feels as personal as anything that he has done before. On an artistic level, the notion of people who find themselves living outside of their times and at odds with the aging process is a concept that he has explored in the past in such varied films as “Peggy Sue Got Married,” “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” “Jack” and even the long-unseen French Plantation sequence that finally came to light in “Apocalypse Now Redux.” (With its unique time structure that blends the past and present together, one could theoretically add “The Godfather Part II” to that list as well.) On a more personal level, those familiar with Coppola’s career are well aware that for the last couple of decades, he has been obsessed with the idea of making a film entitled “Megalopolis,” a sprawling science-fiction epic about the future remaking of New York City and its effect on the populace. After years of struggling to wrest the idea into a workable cinematic concept and even shooting some second-unit footage on his own, he was finally forced to abandon it because of a combination of budgetary problems and the unavoidable fact that the realities of the post-9/11 world would have required a major reworking of the screenplay. Therefore, it isn’t too far-fetched to assume that the notion of a person who has magically been given a second chance at creating the magnum opus that time and circumstance had forced him to abandon must have had an immediate resonance with Coppola when he read Eliade’s story.

I suppose that these basic elements could have be pulled together into a fairly conventional bit of nonsensical romantic fluff in the vein of “Somewhere in Time” and its ilk but with “Youth Without Youth,” Coppola has defiantly gone in the other direction by serving up a rich and heady stew of metaphysical musings on the nature of time, love, philosophy and man’s capacity for good and evil with the enthusiasm and excitement of a late-night college bull session. Of course, these are subjects that inspire many thoughts and ideas but few concrete answers and to his credit, Coppola doesn’t try to wrench them into something simple and simple-minded. Instead, he has created a work whose ideas are meant to inspire hours of thoughtful debate among those who have viewed it. If you enjoyed such head-spinners as “Mulholland Drive,” “Inland Empire” and “Southland Tales,” my guess is that you will also find yourself sparking to what Coppola has wrought this time around. That said, to be perfectly honest, the basic narrative of the film isn’t all that hard to follow along with as long as you are paying attention–it certainly made more sense than anything in that “The Golden Compass” boondoggle–though I will admit that things do become much clearer upon a second viewing.

Sadly, at a time when even the most seemingly obvious things have to be spelled out for audiences these days in order to lessen the risk of confusing and alienating them, Coppola’s belief that audiences are still willing to actively engage with a film as they did in the past with the works of Bergman, Godard and Antonioni is touching but perhaps a bit misguided as even many critics, the very people who are theoretically supposed to explore films like this for their meanings and messages, have largely reacted with hostility to this film. Personally, I found Coppola’s narrative experimentation to be largely successful despite a couple of hiccups here and there, the chief one being the unavoidable fact that the grand romantic tragedy that forms the film’s climax does not come off as the overwhelmingly powerful emotional experience that it wants to be. Frankly, Coppola’s willingness to grapple with Big Ideas at a time when small ones have dominated the current cinema makes for an invigorating night at the movies by itself and the fact that he has done so in such a clever and intriguing manner is a cause for further celebration.

“Youth Without Youth” is also a fascinating film to watch simply in terms of cinematic craft. Over the years, Coppola, like so many other successful filmmakers, has expressed an idea to turn away from the jumbo-sized epics that made him famous in order to make smaller and more experimental works that aren’t necessarily designed to be blockbusters. In most cases, this talk usually lasts until said filmmaker signs up for that latest blockbuster (George Lucas has been spinning that line ever since the release of “Star Wars” 30 years ago) but Coppola has finally put his money where his mouth is (literally since he financed the film himself with as much money as he could afford to lose) and has come up with a work that combines the consummate skill as a filmmaker that he has achieved after five decades in the business with the giddy excitement of a newcomer getting his first (and possibly only) chance to make a film on his own terms with nothing standing in the way of capturing his own distinct vision. (In this regard, Coppola has joined the ranks of such filmmakers as David Lynch and Brian De Palma, veteran directors who have chosen to go the truly independent route in order to get the directorial freedom that the studio system now tends to deny any filmmaker not named Spielberg or Scorsese.) Working in Romania with a crew composed mostly of first-timers, Coppola has given us a film that is both as agreeably rough and tumble as any small-scale indie production and beautifully put together as anything that he has made since “One From the Heart.” Instead of simply being able to spend whatever money was required in order to bring his vision to fruition, Coppola has been forced, like so many other emerging filmmakers, to rely more on ingenuity to get his vision across and his efforts in that regard seems to have reinvigorated something within him as this is the most inspired and alive work that he has given us in a long time.

Look, I am perfectly aware that very few of you are going to rush out to see “Youth Without Youth” in the next few weeks (that is, if you even get the opportunity to do so) and I would further wager that the majority of those of you that do are going to walk away from the film feeling confused and/or angry. (At Rotten Tomatoes, it currently has a 30% recommended rate from critics, which puts it squarely between the 43% achieved by “The Golden Compass” and the 25% eked out by “Alvin and the Chipmunks.) This is kind of a bummer for now, though I guess not totally unexpected, but even if it does go down for the time being as a failure, I suspect that it will be registered as one of those fascinating follies that retains its mystique and allure long after the memory of the more successful films of the season has faded into nothing. Ironically, considering the hoops that it makes its characters jump thorough throughout, I believe that time will be very kind to this film.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=16782&reviewer=389
originally posted: 12/21/07 00:00:00
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User Comments

5/08/10 millersxing Alexandra Maria Lara excels in a nuanced role just as she did in Downfall. 4 stars
12/31/07 PJHDVM This movie was Awful Without Rest. It was terrible, long, disorganized, boring, foolish, et 1 stars
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  DVD: 13-May-2008



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