Monday, October 27, 2008

Youth Without Youth: Grade C

Youth Without Youth (2007)
Tim Roth, Alexandra Maria Lara. Writer-Director Francis Ford Coppola.

No film by Coppola should be missed, but this is an example of what happens when one person is producer, director and screenplay writer: there is no pushback and the project becomes solipsistic. The cinematography is beautiful and recognizably Coppola’s, especially that late afternoon Italian sunlight casting a slanting yellow glow over buildings, people, landscape. The musical leitmotifs are likewise reminiscent of the Godfather series. But in this film, Coppola channels his inner David Lynch to express something about lost youth, the inevitable diminutions of aging, and a vague hope of everlasting life. None of it makes any sense. Turn the sound off and look at the beautiful photography.

Tim Roth would win best performance in a totally enigmatic role. He is a washed-up, 70 year old professor in 1938 Bucharest who is struck by lightning one day in front of a medieval church. That is the most unexpected and shocking scene in the film. It evokes more than lightning; it is somehow a divine intervention into human life. To the amazement of doctors, he does not die, but even more amazing, recovers as a 40 year old man. The story possibilities at this point are endlessly intriguing, but instead all semblance of story is given up. Inexplicably, the old-young man now has paranormal powers, such as clairvoyance, telekinesis, hypermnesia, and the ability to speak, read, and write just about any language in the world, past or present. Cool! He also suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder (what used to be called split personality) so he can have deep conversations with himself. There are some neat visual shots with mirrors portraying that idea.

He meets a young woman (Lara) but somehow she is transformed into his Picture of Dorian Gray. As she suddenly ages (with some gray hair and not-too-convincing makeup), she also regresses to her former life as a cave-dwelling spiritual seeker of centuries ago in India. Hey, it could happen to anyone! Fortunately, Roth speaks Sanskrit, so they can talk about it. Lucky break there.

Meanwhile Nazis want to capture Roth to possess “his secret” whatever that might be, so he flees Romania, and I can’t remember what happens next but it doesn’t matter. In the end, he dies, and the girl becomes young again, with no memory of her cave dwelling life.

Can any meaning be inferred from all this incoherent nonsense? It does seem to express Coppola’s intuition (I am guessing), which is something like, “Dammit, I can’t be 70 years old already! There must be more to the human condition than just living, eating, sleeping and dying!” So in the film he explores some possibilities that defy aging, defy the limits of one person’s knowledge, but ultimately he accepts death. If I am not reading too much into it then, the film at least gestures at an existential protest.

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