YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH
Running Time 124 minutes
Written and directed by Francis Coppola
Starring Tim Roth, Alexandra Maria Lara
Francis Coppola’s Youth Without Youth, from his own screenplay, based on the Romanian novella by Mircea Eliade, was shot entirely in Romania with a Romanian crew. In his director’s statement for the production notes, Mr. Coppola, now 68 (he has long since dropped “Ford” as a middle name), discusses the genesis of the film: “I was first made aware of Youth Without Youth by a friend from high school, Wendy Doniger. She did me a favor of reading a screenplay I’d been working on for many years, Megalopolis, without being able to complete. I had a hunch that Wendy, now an eminent professor of South Asian studies at the University of Chicago, would shed some light on some of the difficult concepts in the story—and she did. We discussed the two areas of film language which always intrigued me, time and interior consciousness.
“Her reaction to the screenplay was encouraging, more significantly, she enclosed some intriguing lines from Youth Without Youth a novella written by her mentor, Mircea Eliade. I decided to read the story itself. Soon after starting, I suddenly thought, ‘I can make this into a movie. I won’t tell anyone. I’ll just start doing it.’
“The story touched my life. Like its leading character, Dominic, I was tortured and stumped by my inability to complete an important work. At 66, I was frustrated. I hadn’t made a film in eight years. My business was thriving, but my creative life was unfilled.”
Tim Roth, a 46-year-old British-born actor who has frequently played villains, monsters and other eccentrics in his 70-credit film and television career in many countries, appears in almost every scene in the film, in and out of old-age makeup, along with his subconscious alter ego played by himself. The different guises of “Laura” as the great loves of his life are played by the same actress, Alexandra Maria Lara. Mr. Coppola used only one special camera in all the Romanian locations, and, by choice or necessity, no camera movements from start to finish. As we have indicated, there is much makeup backward and forward in age not only for the protagonist, but also for his great love.
Almost at the outset there is one spectacular special effect, of a bolt of lightning striking Dominic at 70, and in a miracle of rejuvenation, bringing him back to the age of 30, with an equally miraculous expansion of his mental capacity so that he can complete his research into the origins of human language back to its various beginnings somewhere on the Indian subcontinent. If this isn’t a self-reflecting allegory of personal and professional wish-fulfillment fantasy, I don’t know what is.
Mr. Coppola has been in the movie business for more than 45 years in one capacity or another, and in that period has reached more highs and lows than any American filmmaker I can recall. Coppola’s latest “comeback” has been likened to similar efforts by Orson Welles and Erich von Stroheim, but once these titanic icons were down, they were pretty well out, and neither had a Godfather cycle in their résumés. After all, Citizen Kane (1941) did less than so-so business despite all its accolades, and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) was a total flop with both critics and audiences, and these were Welles’ two greatest films.
Among the new elements Mr. Coppola injected into the Eliade story is a pointed anti-Nazi subplot, by which Mr. Coppola traces the rise and fall of the Third Reich in Germany and Romania from 1938 to 1945 largely through newspaper headlines. Bruno Ganz plays an anti-Nazi Romanian scientist, Professor Stanciulescu, who warns Dominic that Hitler himself has gotten wind of Dominic’s rejuvenation through a bolt of lightning; Hitler is acting through a crackpot experimenter with lightning, one Josef Rudolf, to have the Gestapo bring Dominic to Germany for further tests in the pursuit of the Aryan Superman ideal. The anti-Nazi professor assists Dominic in escaping to Switzerland. Mr. Coppola’s political innovations in the narrative are somewhat ironic, as S. James Snyder notes in an article in The New York Sun of December 7-9, 2007, “that Eliade, a distinguished scholar and writer, had ties to the fascist Iron Guard in his home country of Romania as a youth, and was alleged to have written anti-Semitic tracts.”
A further irony is involved in Mr. Coppola’s venture into the humanist-intellectual area of cinema identified more with foreign directors than with Americans, particularly since Mr. Coppola’s greatest contribution to the American cinema has been in his creative revitalization of the gangster and horror genres. Hence, though he has defiantly admitted that Youth Without Youth may be too abstruse and difficult for the average audience, who cares? The fact remains that though his own talent was nurtured at an early stage in his career by Roger Corman, he, in turn, has generously nurtured the careers of George Lucas and his own daughter, Sofia Coppola. Along with Martin Scorcese he has brought to America the old French Cahiers du Cinéma tributes and support for aging masters like Jean Renoir in the case of François Truffaut; Fritz Lang in the case of Claude Chabrol; and Akira Kurosawa and Abel Gance in the case of Mr. Coppola.
Through my years as a die-hard auteurist, I have learned to understand and appreciate the later works of Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Josef von Sternberg, Frank Borzage, Howard Hawks, Charles Chaplin et al.—massive talents, like Mr. Coppola, with nothing left to prove. Youth Without Youth is well worth seeing in that spirit.