Sometimes the greatest challenges come later in life after you’ve achieved everything you thought your heart desired, when you wake up knowing in the deepest recesses of your soul that your life’s work remains substantially incomplete.
Fame and fortune obscure the initial search for truth and dull the will, giving you a false sense of accomplishment while the deferred dream remains on the horizon. But what else can you do? Where will the energy and the inspiration come from to propel you forward?
After years of contemplation of a potential science-fiction masterwork in Megalopolis, the writing of Romanian writer-philosopher Mircea Eliade hastened Francis Ford Coppola’s desire to return to film. More importantly, it marks Coppola’s return to a more personal style of filmmaking akin to the true independent spirit of his best efforts. It’s an approach that allowed him to work fast and loose with complete control and authority on his own dime. That is the joy and passion of youth.
As Coppola shares in the press notes for Youth Without Youth, he embarked on this rather secretive journey to translate Eliade’s novella because “like its leading character, Dominic, I was tortured and stumped by my inability to complete an important work.”
Coppola’s place in film history is secure thanks to his Godfather trilogy, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now, but for a director who hadn’t made a film since The Rainmaker in 1997, he was on the verge of being known more for winemaking and siring a new generation of filmmakers (daughter Sofia and son Roman) than for his own efforts. The business of film had nearly bankrupted him after 1982’s One From the Heart, and his string of films following that financial failure were more about recouping losses than a pursuit of art.
Thus for a man who has made enough money to follow his own muse back into filmmaking on his own terms, the story of linguist Dominic Matei (Tim Roth), a renowned professor torn between his lifelong study into the origins of language and the true love he passed on earlier in life, must have been intriguing. Set initially in 1938 Romania, Matei, at 70, feels the devastating effects of time on his body and realizes that his life’s work, his one passion, is soon to be lost to him.
A freak lightning strike sends him into a fantastic rebirth. He emerges young again, a peak physical specimen, in fact, with the ability to absorb information at an astonishing rate. In addition, he develops psychic and psionic powers, along with a double — a reflection that guides him single-mindedly towards his goal.
But Matei becomes the target of the Nazis who see him as the model for a super-soldier program that would allow the Third Reich to achieve their nefarious ends. And he also encounters a young woman named Veronica (Alexandra Maria Lara), a mirror of his lost love, who also is struck by lightning and, like him, is endowed with strange new abilities.
Matei again will be forced to decide between his intellectual passion and romantic love, and his struggle will take place on two fronts: internally against his double and externally against the Nazis and the new world looming on the horizon.
Matei’s situation has the feel of a classic Twilight Zone premise. It is a philosophical debate regarding what one would do with the knowledge of a life lived, the wisdom of age, experience and awareness in a youthful body. It seems the re-invigorated Coppola finds himself at a similar point. Coppola’s personal investment overwhelms Roth and the other performers with its symbolic imagery and literary cues.
Yet in the end Youth Without Youth is a dream, but not a fevered or feverish one — more like a fading memory that slips through your perceptive fingertips no matter how many times you return to it. It’s elusive, but Coppola does all he can to let us feel his renewed energy and purpose. Even with wisdom there is folly in youthful indulgence, but art is best served by such aspirations. Grade: A- (tt stern-enzi)