(willamette week) At first blush, Francis Ford Coppola appears to be having a late midlife crisis. Using his wine money to bankroll grandiose cinematography that spans continents, he displays an over-dependence on upside-down camera angles and appears to be cribbing from directors who have come before. Add to this the almost indecipherable text—religious historian and philosopher Mircea Eliade’s labyrinthine reflection on chronology, mortality and, oh hell, linguistics—and Youth Without Youth should be a disjointed, pretentious mess.
But Youth is inexplicably successful. For all the highfalutin concepts crammed into its meager 124 minutes, it doesn’t demand too much intellectual investment to get off the ground. It’s dreamy and lyrical, an unholy hybrid of political thriller, florid romance and superhero epic. Two acts, almost independent of each other, create a nonlinear, episodic story. As a whole, it’s fairly incomprehensible. Piecemeal, it’s far more gratifying.
We begin in 1938, not a good year for elderly linguistics professor Dominic Matei (Tim Roth), who rushes through the Romanian capitol with the intention of killing himself. A bolt of lightning (one of many to make a cameo in the film) cuts him down first, and as Matei mends in a nearby hospital, he sheds his old set of teeth and about forty years. Armed with his previous life’s work and a strong resistance to aging, Matei has intellectual ambitions matched only by the film’s director: He wants to find the origin of language.
Luckily, Matei’s recent accident has given him near-superhuman abilities to absorb information and master languages. The isolation of old age (he is at heart an octogenarian) and academic pursuit is interrupted by Matei’s newfound virility and flashbacks to his lost (and dead) love, as well as Romania’s impending occupation. As a medical anomaly, Matei is stalked by a villainous surgeon of the Third Reich. But Matei easily passes through, and the film enters its own second life. Matei meets and beds his old lady’s doppelgänger, who is also struck down by lightning. Her questionable power is the tendency to speak in ancient tongues—invaluable to Matei’s research, but detrimental to the poor girl’s health.
Coppola’s latest succeeds thanks to its contrasts. Visually, the film runs the gamut from heady romance to all-out noir. Pompous generalizations and annoying philosophizing are given levity by virtue of Roth’s languid charm, and the sense that, far from preaching, the director wasn’t entirely certain how to commit Eliade’s tale to film. But it was too rich a story to pass up—and still is.