Sony // 2008 // 125 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Michael Rubino // May 5th, 2008
"I was doomed to lose everything I love."
-- Dominic Matei
The legendary filmmaker behind The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, and Jack (okay, maybe not Jack) returns after a 10-year hiatus. He brings with him a small, self-financed film about death, mysticism, and romance. It's a beautiful looking movie, as expected, but it's also complex and often confounding.
Dominic Matei (Tim Roth, Pulp Fiction) is a 70-year-old Romanian language scholar who, after conceding that he'll never finish his life's work, marches off to kill himself. But along the way, Dom is struck by lightning and charred to a crisp. His case is unique, however, because instead of dying like most folks, he reverts back to the age of 40. Now, he's got all the knowledge of an old man, but a renewed, healthy body. His story doesn't go unnoticed; soon Hitler sends Nazi soldiers and secret service agents to study Dominic, hoping to use his powers to help Hitler stay young. That's only the first half of the film. With time on his side, Dominic continues to work on his life's work, tracing language back to its very origins. He also must deal with his own personal demons, lost love, and his mortality.
Youth Without Youth is based on a novella by Romanian author Mircea Eliade.
Francis Ford Coppola's return to the silver screen seemed to have come and gone with little fanfare. Perhaps it was because Youth Without Youth is a dense, confusing film that got low-to-middling reviews by most mainstream critics. Or maybe it's because the film had such a limited release and was more of a personal reflection for Coppola rather than a mainstream blockbuster like The Rainmaker or The Godfather: Part II. Whatever the reason for its quiet failure, I don't think the movie deserves the treatment it received.
Youth Without Youth isn't a movie that's easily accessible or clear. And while not as befuddling as Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain, Coppola's film isn't far behind. Thankfully, he's more reserved and traditional with his take on the metaphysical story: dream sequences are shown upside-down, scenes of self turmoil are usually in a dark blue, and time periods are established ever so slightly by news headlines and changes in technology. He doesn't spell everything out for the viewer, mind you, but he also doesn't throw aside his polished and experienced filmmaking techniques in favor of some slickly edited avant-garde piece (which would be very tempting with a story like this).
The story is broken into three distinct acts. The first act, which begins with Dominic being struck by lightning, is decidedly noir-ish and paranoid. Once Dom's powers are discovered, Nazis begin to pursue him (all the way to Switzerland!). Meanwhile Dom is still struggling with the realization that he has been given a second lease on life. Tim Roth does an unbelievable job playing this fully-realized character. Roth is reserved in presenting the various moods and attitudes of Dominic as he struggles between the pursuit of scientific truth and inner peace. The second act fast forwards to the mid-50s, and finds Dom kicking his research in to high gear. His world, which is beginning to reach some brand of normalcy, is rocked again as he discovers Veronica (Alexandra Maria Lara), a woman who was struck by lighting and begins regressing through historical languages (Sanskrit, Egyptian, etc.). This transitions to the third act, where the film and Dominic come full circle, and leave the audience with (probably) more questions than answers.
It was in the third act that I found the film to be a bit on the vague side. Not only does it become more confusing, but it also feels a tad rushed. While the movie is never terribly exciting (and I'd even go as far as to say it crawls leading into the third act), the ending came off a little too much like a Twilight Zone episode. In the grand scheme of the entire 125 minute runtime, it's a small quibble. This movie certainly won't be for everyone, but I found it to be at the very least extremely interesting, and at the most a minor entry into the library of a film master. Coppola hasn't made a film in 10 years, and prior to that, he probably hasn't filmed a good script in 20. Perhaps now that he has this refresher film under his belt, he'll get on with making that final great work to close his career.
Youth Without Youth may have been overlooked in theaters, but that doesn't mean Sony skimped on the DVD. The film has a solid transfer that really punctuates Coppola's use of color. The picture is sharp, without any noticeable artifacts or edge issues. There were a few times when it looked like the black levels were underexposed or flat, but I'm guessing that was an artistic choice rather than a technical fault. Going along with the great video is an excellent and unique musical score by Osvaldo Golijov and an adequate 5.1 Dolby Surround track.
The disc also comes with a small but welcomed assortment of special features. The best of which is a full length audio commentary by Francis Ford Coppola. The director is extremely intelligent and is able to not only explain his methods behind filming certain scenes, but also the literary backgrounds of the story and this film's allusions to cinematic history. It's a decent commentary that helps clear up some, but not all, confusion about the story. Oddly enough, out of the three behind-the-scenes featurettes, the one labeled "Making Of" is the shortest, coming in at only eight minutes. It's a fairly standard video that doesn't really go in to depth. "The Music of Youth Without Youth," however, is much more detailed, clocking in at over 25 minutes. The featurette shows the orchestra improvising much of the score, along with some of the stranger instruments featured from time to time. Finally, there is a make-up featurette that lasts 18 minutes and covers the process of making Tim Roth and Alexandra Maria Lara look like old people. While it was neat to watch, I didn't think the make-up job was as good as they made it sound.
While the first half of the movie -- in other words, the portion that takes place prior to World War II -- is both thrilling and suspenseful, once it skips ahead to the post-war era it becomes bogged down. After the threat of the Nazis are gone, and Dominic can concentrate on his work (and eventually meet Veronica), the film shifts over to a romantic tragedy and never fully regains its initial captivating sense of mystery. There is also a heck of a lot of globe trotting in the second half, and none of it really feels fleshed out or paced correctly.
Some people may love the metaphysical aspects of this film, but general audiences (who may have loved Coppola's more accessible works) will most likely hate it. This movie could be considered a minor successes or a minor failure...at least it's better than Jack.
Unlike the majority of critics, I enjoyed this movie. I wouldn't by any means consider it to be one of Coppola's best, but it presented an intriguing concept gelled with a polished old-school directorial style. It's certainly not going to appeal to most people, but if you enjoy Coppola or the films of Darren Aronofsky you'll find something to like here.
Guilty of being a (small) comeback for Francis Ford Coppola.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 125 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary with Francis Ford Coppola
* "The Making of Youth Without Youth"
* "The Music for Youth Without Youth"
* "Youth Without Youth: The Makeup"
* Official Site