It's telling that Francis Ford Coppola described the third installment of his legendary Godfather crime saga (in which the formerly stone-cold Don Michael Corleone is forced to reckon with the last vestiges of his spirit) as a “coda”: For better and for worse, he’s been making codas for years now. Beginning with The Godfather Part III, all of Coppola's films are essentially the confessions of a man convinced of his own limitations.
Whatever their pedigree -- everything-and-the-kitchen-sink epics like Bram Stoker's Dracula or near-anonymous works-for-hire Jack and The Rainmaker -- Coppola's later-era films have about them a distinct air of finality, though he seems to be jumping the gun, wanting to stare down Death before the Reaper even gets to his name. He's the great anticipator of American filmmakers, constantly drumming up publicity to increasingly diminishing returns; though the Coppola hype is blinding (he rarely does himself any immediate favors), it doesn't detract from the fact that many of his later works are of tremendous interest, if not -- in a few cases -- outright masterpieces.
Which brings us to Youth Without Youth, Coppola’s hi-def adaptation of the Romanian philosopher Mircea Eliade’s 1976 novella of love and linguistics, set in 1938 during the Nazi rise to power and incorporating magical-realist elements of philosophy and time travel. The elderly Romanian professor at the story's center, Dominic Matei (Tim Roth), is convinced he'll never finish his ambitious life's work -- to trace the origins of language back to their primordial beginnings. His study has taken many fruitless years and cost him the love of his life, Laura (Alexandra Maria Lara). Now an old man approaching -- as his students readily note -- total senility, Dominic is in a constant state of suicidal despair. But a freak accident (a rogue bolt of lightning) restores his mind and his youth, much to the interest of the kindly Dr. Stanciulescu (Bruno Ganz) and the ever-encroaching armies of Hitler.
That setup alone might be enough for one movie (an espionage thriller wrapped in sci-fi/fantasy trappings), but Youth Without Youth uses it as a mere jumping-off point for a more playfully discursive exploration of one man's hungry urge to create. Whatever its fidelity to Eliade's source novella, it's best to read the film as Coppola's palimpsest. The old-time movie opening credits (elegant text rippling over a background of blood-red roses) regress the memory like Mesmer and Svengali, beckoning us to enter Dominic's dream state. Swathed like the Mummy and treated like Frankenstein upon his recovery from the lightning strike, Dominic soon becomes something of an atomic-age superman, forced underground by Nazi agents, pursued through Third Man-like back alleys by sinister confidantes of Goebbels and their accompanying Mata Haris.
It would be easy to say Dominic is lost in a film; better to suggest he's adrift in a projection. Coppola trusts that cinema’s inherently literal properties (colliding one against the other, much like Dominic with the devilishly verbose double (also Roth) who follows him from place to place) will elicit their own depth of feeling. Take the many philosophical, religious and scientific references (not to mention Coppola's stylistic reliance on canted angles and flipped images) at face value and confusion results. Allow the constant play of words, ideas, images and sounds to wash over you in an aural/visual continuum and it becomes suddenly, brilliantly illuminating -- the effect for me is of a Jorge Luis Borges story writ cinematically large.
At heart, Youth Without Youth is a simple story of man and muse. History is a mere formality in Dominic's dream. (Coppola's wittiest implication: that this mild-mannered professor single-handedly brings down the SS with his mind -- how delightful an ego-stroke for the academic!) It eventually takes a back seat when Dominic discovers his love Laura reincarnated -- shades of Vertigo -- as a fresh-faced 1950s woman named Veronica (Lara again). Another ill-timed lightning strike and Veronica is suddenly convinced she is an Indian mystic named Rupini. This pushes Youth Without Youth into its final, tragic section -- something of an impossible David Lean romance with explicitly metaphysical embellishments -- where Dominic is forced to consider whether completion of his life’s work is worth the sacrifice of another human being.
The great gift of Coppola's recent (or relatively recent; he hasn't made a film in a decade) artistry is his deeply entrenched sense of humanity. Even when his work gets self-referential in the extreme, there is empathy for his characters in all their complexity, especially in their failures. To this end, the key scene of Youth Without Youth is the penultimate café gathering, back at the film's 1930s origin point, between Dominic and a group of his colleagues. He speaks blithely of events yet to occur (the Hiroshima bomb, Armstrong's moon landing) even as his friends brush off his predictions with drinks in hand and snickers at the ready. Replace the academic-speak with talk of cinema and this might be Coppola arguing with his fellow film brats (and how fascinating to consider the generation of Spielberg/Scorsese/De Palma/Milius etc, as reminiscing old men). Dominic eventually rises from his chair to friendly back-pats and a foggy memory; age has caught up with him and his work remains in a perpetually gestating state.
Is Coppola railing against the inevitable or accepting it? Perhaps to live is, for him, to defy the preordained outcome, which is why he takes Dominic (as he does so many of his later characters) to the point of dying. Only there can the grace and transcendence of a life fully lived be achieved. Dominic's revelation (hinging on the placement of, per Youth Without Youth's enduring floral motif, a "third rose") is not only what Coppola hopes for himself, but for all of us.
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