Coppola's magical-realist mess

Posted: February 08, 2008

A fascinating failure, a sumptuous mess, Youth Without Youth is Francis Ford Coppola's loony excursion into old-school European cinema, a piece of magical realism about eternal love and human mortality, the life of the mind and the mind of the artist (Coppola's).

Beginning with credits that evoke vintage Hollywood and Cinecittà studio classics - and using a cinematographer, Mihai Malaimare Jr., who must have crash-coursed the collected works of Bertolucci - Youth Without Youth is about a 70-year-old Romanian linguistics professor (Tim Roth) who, having completed a manuscript representing a lifetime's work, gets hit on the noggin by a lightning bolt.

He's taken for dead. But then this brainy gent, Dominic Matei, awakens, astounding the attendant physicians and beginning a remarkable recovery that reverses the aging process and gives his mind new acuity, and even powers of telekinesis and ESP.

This happens on the brink of World War II, and so as the Nazis steamroll across Europe, Dominic gets younger, grows a new set of teeth, and becomes embroiled in serious hugger-mugger with the SS - who figure his rejuvenation, and his psychic talents, could serve the Fuhrer's cause. And so Youth Without Youth is part spy thriller, giving Coppola an excuse to proffer up a sexy undercover Nazi (Alexandra Pirici) with sexy underwear (her garter belt has a swastika!), and an evil German scientist.

But mainly, Youth Without Youth is a love story. With Dominic's rebirth, he gets to reconnect with the lost soul mate of his youth: Laura (Alexandra Maria Lara), a fellow university student who left him because he couldn't break away from his work. Now, Laura reappears as an alpine hiker in Switzerland, a woman named Veronica. And Veronica, it turns out, inexplicably speaks ancient Sanskrit - claiming, in this incarnation, to be Rupini. Linguistic experts are baffled, linguist Dominic bedazzled.

Mixing Faust and Eastern spiritualism, The Picture of Dorian Gray and Lost Horizon, wartime intrigue and lavish romance, Youth Without Youth is never dull, even as it makes next to no sense. Roth is bravely straight-faced as the wizened intellectual transformed into a 40-year-old who can glean new (and forgotten) languages like that, and who seems to have a doppelganger at cross purposes.

The actress Lara (recently seen in Control) is lovely, especially as Coppola and Malaimare frame her in magic-hour light, peering from windows onto an infinite sea.

Youth Without Youth is so beautiful, in fact, that it almost transcends the epic bunkum of Coppola's script - adapted, it should be noted, from a novella by Romanian philosopher Mircea Eliade.

But almost doesn't count, even when it is uttered in ancient tongues.


Youth Without Youth **1/2 (out of four stars)

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola. With Tim Roth, Alexandra Maria Lara, Bruno Ganz and Alexandra Pirici. Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.

Running time: 2 hours, 4 mins.

Parent's guide: R (nudity, sex, violence, adult themes)

Playing at: Ritz at the Bourse


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com.

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