Francis Ford Coppola has made nutty movies in the past—most notably his nearly plotless musical “One from the Heart” (1982), and some would even cite “Apocalypse Now”—but nothing to compare with this one, his first new feature in a decade and a bit of errant pseudo-mystical nonsense that manages to be both ponderously pretentious and extravagantly absurd. If “Youth Without Youth” were played tongue-in-cheek it might serve as a savvy satire of a particular sort of self-important spiritualist science fiction. But as it is, it’s merely a lumbering, loony disaster, an act of real cinematic lunacy.
Adapted by Coppola himself, as the titles tell us, from the writings of the Romanian philosopher and religious historian Mircea Eliade (in particular his novella of the same title), the tale centers on a professor of philology named Dominic Matei (Tim Roth), who—when we first meet him in 1938—is an elderly man still in mourning over the loss of the love of his life, Laura (Alexandra Maria Lara), who left him decades before because of his obsession to discover the origin of human language, and in despair at the thought of never completing his life’s work. Arriving in Bucharest with the intention of committing suicide, he’s struck by lightning, and during a stay in the hospital is discovered by Dr. Stancuilescu (Bruno Ganz) to have grown younger—winding up in his thirties, it seems.
Matei soon becomes an object of fascination to wicked Nazi scientists seeking answers to the power of electricity, who employ a seductress (Alexandra Pirici) to extract information from him, and so flees under an assumed name to Switzerland, where he waits out the war studying—something that’s easier for him since he’s now endowed with the power to absorb the contents of any book merely by touching it. After the war’s end he meets a tourist named Veronica (Lara again, recalling Laura of course), who later is caught in a terrible mountain storm (and presumably struck by lightning too) and, after being taken to hospital, proves amazingly to have been transformed into a seventh-century Sanskrit-spouting mystic called Rupini—perhaps one of her former lives. Taken to India, she identifies a cave where she was copying texts written by her master when trapped there by another storm centuries earlier.
Veronica/Rupini (and by extension Laura, too) and Dominic, now lovers, go off together to Malta, where she suffers ever more regressive episodes that act as material for Matei’s linguistic and philosophical inquiries. But the experience ages her terribly, and Dominic departs in 1969, believing that he’s the cause of her degeneration. He returns to Romania, where he suddenly finds himself in the company of his friends from thirty years before and himself returned to old age.
And as if all this weren’t weird enough, after the return of his youth Matei is periodically confronted by a wispy doppelganger (also played by Roth, of course), who warns him of danger and superciliously points out his faults.
Obviously this story is not your conventional cup of cinematic tea—it’s almost as if Coppola had taken to heart the observation made by Stanciulescu to Matei at one point, “You’re behaving as you should to create the necessary confusion.” And that would be great—sheer formula being the bane of so many movies nowadays—if “Youth Without Youth” were also emotionally engaging or even vaguely coherent as well as different from the run-of-the-mill movie. Unfortunately, in Coppola’s hands, it quickly degenerates into a chain of increasingly goofy episodes that don’t lead into one another in any compelling way, let alone a logical one. A major miscalculation is the treatment of Eliade’s essentially threadbare ideas about eternal recurrence, transmigration of souls and the like as though they were profound. That leads the director to stage everything at a funereal pace, as though each word and gesture were pregnant with meaning. He also lards on the symbolism with a trowel—but a rose is still just a rose. And he trots out a battery of old-fashioned movie tropes to hide the modesty of the resources at his disposal. So while the locations and sets never have the requisite opulence, he and cinematographer Mihai Malaimare, Jr., use swooning camera movements, ostentatious dissolves and glowing lighting to try to give them a sumptuous look. And it’s hard to think of a picture in which the most hackneyed mode of conveying the passage of time—successions of newspaper headlines—is so often employed.
In this sad context the actors seem almost trapped, with Roth faring worst. In his “normal” young man’s persona the ordinarily febrile fellow comes across so damped down that he barely registers, but things are even gloomier when he has to hold conversations with himself in inexpert process shots, forced to distinguish one Dominic from the other with grimaces and pursed lips; and as if that weren’t bad enough, his doddering old man scenes are of Tim Conway quality. Lara is blankly beautiful in her multiple roles, and Pirici defeated by the extravagant femme fatale trappings she’s compelled to adopt. Even so fine a performer as Bruno Ganz is bland here, undermined (like so many of the Europeans on hand) by dubbing that never quite convinces. Matt Damon shows up for a cameo that has absolutely no fizz. (But at least he’s not dubbed.)
In fact, the only thing in “Youth Without Youth” that does command attention is the sheer artificiality of the enterprise, in both narrative and visual terms. As in “One from the Heart,” Coppola seems more interested in showing off than in connecting with the audience, and while the result is occasionally striking from a purely visual perspective, it’s totally deadening in every other respect. The result gives resonance to a comment made at one point in the picture. “What do we do with time?” a character asks rhetorically. “That question represents the supreme ambiguity of the human condition.” Well, one thing you’re advised not to do with your time is to endure this pretty but confused and vapid misfire from a once great director.