Coppola is a genius at telling a detailed evolving storyline but sometimes that storyline gets lost
Francis Ford Coppola needs no introduction to these or many other forums, he's the person who in my own opinion has produced by far the best ever story on the big screen; The Godfather I & II, a rounded complete story not even able to fit into the 3 hours of the first film.
Riding high on the back of his sequel some 5 years later he comes out of the cupboard with another tour de force, Apocalypse Now, regarded as some as the best anti war film ever made it was a demon of a film to shoot and at times the ramblings of Marlon Brando confused many sitting in the audience. Since that time he's graced us with many enjoyable features; Rumble Fish, The Cotton Club, Dracula and sank our hearts with the third in the Godfather series, something most fans pretend never really happened.
He's had a short hiatus since the mid to late 90s though and storms back onto our screens with a very personal, insightful piece of work, Youth Without Youth, based on the 1976 novella of the same name by Romanian historian and philosopher Mircea Eliade. Youth Without Youth is by no means an easy watch. It can be viewed on a superficial level but there appears to be more to this film than meets the eye.
Set in the late 1930s, Dominic Matei is an elderly Romanian college professor teaching his students, looking into the origins of language and forever remembering his long lost love of 50 years ago. He feels he is ridiculed and he knows he will die alone; to these ends he decides on a trip to Bucharest to end his life. Ending his life far from his home not to stir up any scandal which his name might be associated with.
On arriving during a thunderstorm he is hit with a bolt of lightning, raised off his feet and thrown back to the ground horribly burned beyond recognition. Whilst he should have died he recovers only to find that he is now apparently some 30 years younger, he has the body he enjoyed when he was in his late thirties or early forties. Obviously the medical community are astounded and would like to study Matei to find the cause, the ever advancing Third Reich also want him on loan for study to see if he can help their pursuit of the ultimate human race. Matei himself wants none of this though, only to carry on his work into the history of language itself, he also finds his mind has grown in power. Where once he would have to spend years researching topics he finds he can assimilate books through simple touch, he also finds other powers which come to his aid.
On the surface this film can be enjoyed as a thriller where the protagonist, superbly played with deep passion by Tim Roth, has the opportunity to relive part of his life, to correct some of the mistakes he made in the past and due to his ever increasing mind and knowledge to finally complete his work and find the true origins of language and by association the origins of man's own intellect. As he embarks upon this trek he knows he will be sought out, the Nazi party only needing him for their own ends and even the Americans, represented and briefly played by Matt Damon, offer him solace and protection; again though ultimately for their own ends. As he continues this journey and ultimately starts a love affair with a woman who might indeed be a reincarnation of his long lost love the viewer feels incredible pity for Matei for both losing the things which he loves and for the strange journey his life becomes after his lightning strike.
To these ends the films works well enough, the acting is impeccable again from Tim Roth who has the depth of character to add weight to a role which so desperately needs it. Associated cast are gleaned from the Romanian community itself with Alexandra Maria Lara depicting his lost and new love Veronica / Laura. Bruno Ganz plays the part of the doctor initially assigned to Matei's recuperation and is a tower of strength and reason for Matei as he comes to terms with his current situation.
But this is only the surface of the film, underneath is a number of different themes most of which overlap and in the melee some of the message gets a little lost. There is the process of reincarnation, the wonder of man as God and the prospect of life eternal through an ever-lasting soul inhabiting one body time after time. Time itself is obviously analysed, its effects and its meaning. Can man extend time to fulfil his dreams, did time only begin when man first learned to communicate with each other? Duality is explored with Matei constantly battling with his eternal self; sometime this internal being advising on a correct course of action, at times encouraging him to pursue his goals of language at all cost. Matei realises ultimately though that research is not everything and where once he lost his love to continue his academic career now due to experience he forgoes his career for the one person he has ever loved.
These underlying currents are where the film falls down somewhat; they are interesting in themselves but there's just too many themes being kept on the go and each is not given enough room to breath or mature and as such their individual messages are lost in this most eclectic of mixes. This has been a burden of Coppola in the past, he is a genius at telling a detailed evolving storyline as indicated in The Godfather but sometimes that storyline gets lost as can be seen in Apocalypse Now. It gets lost here to a major degree and some, like myself at times, will indeed wonder what's going on.
This of course could mean that the film itself has reviewability; you could go back to it time and again and glean yet more from it or find uncovered gems hidden in the many arcs this story presents. Equally it could just be the esoteric ramblings of a man who has the money to finance his feature films; you'll have to decide that for yourself because I'm still sitting on the fence a little. I think it shows promise but that promise for myself I imagine will be a long time in coming.
As mentioned it is a very personal work by Coppola and he states this himself in one of the few documentaries included. By implication then it might not come across at all well to other viewers, to some it will undoubtedly but to the vast majority they may either have to give up or persevere with multiple viewings and intense study. I certainly fall into the latter category. It's a decidedly odd film but not one I'm yet prepared to discount, but because its full message is at best confusing and at times certainly baffling then I'm erring on the side of caution with my final mark.
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