Youth Without Youth (Sony Pictures Classics), Francis Coppola’s first new film after 10 years of self-professed director’s block, is a vast, lumbering white elephant of a movie—but I sort of love it. Self-financed by Coppola and shot on low-budget locations in Eastern Europe, the movie has been labeled “stilted,” “soporific,” and “a pretentious, meandering mess.” But you certainly couldn’t call it conventional, predictable, or pandering. This film is stubbornly, almost insanely, itself, and the convoluted journey it makes—from age to youth, ignorance to omniscience, despair to bliss—can’t help but evoke the filmmaker’s long strange trip of a career, from Dementia 13 to the Godfather movies and Apocalypse Now, through Bram Stoker’s Dracula and The Rainmaker, all the way to … whatever this is.
The film opens in Bucharest in 1938, where Dominic Matei (Tim Roth), a linguistics professor in his 70s, is planning to take his own life for reasons that will become (sort of) clear later. Before he can take the poison that he’s procured for the occasion, he’s struck by lightning and nearly burnt to a crisp. As he recovers in the hospital, tended by a kind doctor (Bruno Ganz), something inexplicable happens: His grey hair turns reddish again, his wrinkles begin to smooth, his teeth fall out en masse only to be replaced by new ones. He’s getting younger.
Along with his lost youth, Dominic has gained a döppelganger, a second Tim Roth who pops up in mirrors to advise him on the pursuit of his life’s goal: to discover the origin of all human language. With his brain supercharged by the lightning bolt, Dominic masters Chinese and Sanskrit in a snap, and is eventually—I love this detail—forced to invent a new language to express the complexity of his thoughts, which he records in an audio diary.
Of course, 1938 is a tough time to be, in Dominic’s words, “a strange superman of the future.” Soon he finds himself pursued by Nazi scientist Josef Rudolf (André M. Hennicke), who wants to experiment on his radically transformed body. Despite the best efforts of a sexy Nazi spy (that swastika embroidered on her garter belt should have been a tip-off), Dominic manages to escape to Switzerland, where he waits out the war while continuing his research.
Hiking up a mountain path some years after the war, Dominic thinks he sees the lost (and now long-dead) love of his youth, Laura, in the form of a woman named Veronica (both roles are played by German-Romanian actress Alexandra Maria Lara). But just moments after meeting Dominic on a mountain road, Veronica is struck by lightning, too, and winds up in a cave babbling in Sanskrit. Italian scholars are flown in—it’s not clear at whose expense—to confirm that Veronica is either possessed by, or the reincarnation of, a seventh-century Indian woman named Rupini.
As Veronica/Laura/Rupini proceeds to regress through the history of human language, babbling first in Egyptian, then Sumerian, then something like proto-caveman, Dominic gets ever closer to deciphering the Ur-language that will complete his life’s work. But will it be at the expense of his true love’s life?
All this mystical ooglety-booglety is handled straightforwardly and completely without camp. It’s difficult to describe the tone of Youth Without Youth, which is based on a novella by Romanian philosopher of religion Mircea Eliade (who was a bit of a Nazi himself, but that’s another story). Despite scene after scene of maddeningly arcane dialogue (“In metaphysical antinomies, empirical proofs lose their value,” Dominic’s double tells him solemnly), the movie remains lyrical, emotionally engaging, and a pleasure to watch. You can laugh at Coppola’s pretensions, but he’s clearly in dialogue (however haltingly) with directors like Bertolucci, Visconti, and Tarkovsky, who saw no reason that film shouldn’t take on the big questions right alongside literature and philosophy. Even Alexandra Maria Lara’s sad-eyed, gazellelike beauty recalls that of an actress from the heyday of European art film—Monica Vitti or Dominique Sanda.
Coppola, describing his first reading of the Eliade novella that inspired him, has said, “I loved the way one darn thing after another kept happening.” If nothing else, his film has certainly captured that feeling onscreen; after a while, a sympathetic viewer gives in and lets herself be carried from continent to continent, century to century. A seaside villa in Malta? Swell. A hillside in Uttar Pradesh? Fine. But for all its geographical and millennial leaps, the story is finally a simple retelling of A Christmas Carol:An embittered old man travels backward in time, revisits his lost loves and abandoned dreams, and comes back with his passion for life renewed. As Coppola himself has made clear in interviews, Youth Without Youth is both a fairy tale and a spiritual autobiography.