Just when he thought he was out, they pull him back in… Francis Ford Coppola has a bone-deep love for movies; the medium has reciprocated in kind, embracing him as one of its true giants. But making Jack and The Rainmaker in swift succession would send far lesser talents than FFC screaming in Munch-like horror into semi-retirement. Thus, the great man has spent much of the last decade attempting to groom daughter Sofia as his successor. But we knew he wouldn’t stay away for good.
What he’s come back with isn’t unexpected either, a defiantly challenging, magic-realist fable that puts no store in appealing to commercial sensibilities. Coppola’s comeback was always going to be on his terms and there are heavy hints of autobiography in the tale of Dominic Matei (Tim Roth), an ageing, disappointed Romanian professor of linguistics who’s spent his life studying the origins of language. When this suicidal septuagenarian gets struck by lightning on Easter Sunday, 1938, however, he mysteriously regains his youth (not to mention a handy double who pops up for existential discussions). Studied by Professor Stanciulescu (Downfall’s Bruno Granz), Dominic’s rapidly evolving intellect matches his physical regeneration.
From there, Youth passes swiftly through three decades. There’s no rhyme nor reason: Coppola makes rules, then breaks them, introduces new characters and drops them just as hastily. In the film’s mid-section, it appears Youth has discovered a strident sense of purpose, as Roth expands his superhuman powers (absorbing the knowledge in books with a single glance; mind control) while dodging mad scientists and Matt Damon (as an American recruiter). And then… poof. His long-lost love Laura (another Downfall star, Alexandra Maria Lara) turns up and it’s a love story in picturesque locations. Only now she’s called Veronica and speaks in ancient tongues in her sleep…
Sticking to stately, classic compositions, gorgeously lit sets and an unhurried pace, Coppola’s style is deliberately old-fashioned, which adds to the film’s barmy charm. It’s just a shame the dramatic thrust and performances aren’t more compelling. Roth, in particular, trudges through his role like a man condemned. But the plot mechanics are just an excuse for Coppola to rummage around as many of life’s mysteries as he can cram into two hours: the passage of time, memory, the divide between dreams and consciousness and, as one character puts it, “the supreme ambiguity of the human soul”.
Long before the credits roll, you know there won’t be a tidy bow wrapping everything up – there are way too many tangential loose ends that Coppola leaves dangling along the way. But Youth Without Youth feels like a man limbering up for a second coming. It can’t have been easy for this proud filmmaker to watch his ’70s cronies remaining vital and relevant (Scorsese winning Oscars; Spielberg and Lucas still hungry for adulation) while he tended to his vineyards. There’s more than enough evidence here to suggest that the twilight of Coppola’s career may throw up some thrilling surprises.
Youth Without Youth is tinged with Coppola's abiding, unquenchable affection for cinema. The eccentric narrative may baffle and meander, but there are glimpses of a great director getting the feel again.