December 27, 2007

Youth Without Youth (12/27/07)

Lettergrade: D-

We saw Francis Ford Coppola's Youth Without Youth last night, which I cannot really recommend due to its deeply philosophical passages and enigmatic density. I know it's a rare thing to criticize a movie for having too many layers and too much going on, but this one, based on a series of novellas by Romanian philosopher, religion professor and cunning linguist Mircea Eliade, is an art film in style and nature that demands the full attention and mental capacity of its viewer in a way that I just didn't find all that compelling. I respect the skill and craft that went into making this thing, but at the same time, I know that the end result just isn't for me.

The picture opens in 1938 Romania with Tim Roth as an old professor of 70 or so, who (like the author) has made it his life's work to study the evolution of Eastern language in an attempt to get to the root of human consciousness. He is struck by lightning one day while crossing the street, and spends 10 weeks in a hospital where doctors discover that his body seems to be regenerating to that of a man of 35. The lightning has provided him with other enhancements as well which gradually reveal themselves with time, including an elevated intellect and a split personality, more ruthlessly intellectual than the original, with whom Roth can reason and share revelations throughout the picture. It may sound like Francis Ford Coppola doing X-Men here, but it's really a bit more cerebral and oblique than that.

Anyway, after his time in the hospital is through, Roth is initially studied by local scientists, but when news of his condition reaches the top Nazi doctors of the day, they desperately attempt to acquire and study him per Hilter's obsession with immortality. As the years pass, Roth does not age... he goes from city to city, assuming various identities, and continuing to work on his book about the origins of language and consciousness. A major plot shift happens when Roth encounters a woman who has likewise been struck by lightning (played by Alexandra Maria Lara, who also played the deceased love of his youth earlier in the movie). Her post-lightning ability is that her id can move backward through time, revealing ancient, unrecorded languages and unwritten history to Roth as he continues his work.

I'll stop describing the particulars of the plot now, as I think that revealing them out of context like this doesn't really represent how they are used within the body of the film. I will state for emphasis, however, that the movie's somewhat episodic structure was frustrating in that it was hard to get a grasp on what the movie was about and where it might be going. I quite enjoy films that undergo "movements" as the picture progresses, but the various sections here felt a bit disconnected to me in a way that was more off-putting than engaging.

Another recurring point of confusion / frustration is that there are certain plot elements that are only revealed through dialogue, not through anything that we get demonstrative proof of. For example, early in the movie, when Roth is being studied by the local Romanian doctor after recuperating in the hospital, we are told that the woman next door, whom we have yet to see, is a spy sent there by the Nazis. Roth apparently has a relationship with her that has already become sexual, although I didn't have any inkling that sex was afoot, in spite of the occasional nipple that went by in one of the many hazy, ethereal dream-sequences from that section.

Coppola, best known for the Godfather movies and Apocalypse Now, hadn't directed a movie in 10 years or so, and Youth Without Youth was made very inexpensively in Romania, primarily funded by Coppola's ever-successful wine business. On one hand I think it's great that there are movies like this out there, and that bold, industrious filmmakers like Coppola can find ways to make them. On the other, however, I must admit that I really had only a sliver of an idea of what the thing was about.

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