Francis Ford Coppola’s take on Youth Without Youth, regardless of its flaws, made me excited about the potential of movies again (If you are among the un-fatigued, my sincerest congratulations to ya.). It is an exploration and celebration of language and consciousness, and as a result, it is almost organically a celebration of its own mode of communication: film. (Finally, a literary adaptation that makes sense.)
Youth has a primitive mystical quality that’s been lost in cinema of late — a characteristic that’s unavoidable when you consider its source material: an eponymous novella from The Sacred and the Profane author Mircea Eliade. Where another director might have overdone it with too-rich colors, over-the-top lighting, and special effects, Coppola (whose name you may recognize from such modest achievements as The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, and The Conversation; this is his first film to be released in a decade) roots the majority of the film in shabby-tinted reality. Apart from its inventive camera angles and editing, Youth has the look of an old-fashioned, modestly-budgeted film, and refreshingly features but one recognizable face, Tim Roth’s, if you don’t count the cameo by …
Ahem, here’s the sitch (but trust me this isn’t the half of it): In pre-World War II Romania, an aged professor of linguistics, Dominic Matei, having failed to complete his life’s work — something about discovering the first language — heads out to kill himself. Before he has the chance, he’s struck — awfully, in the most literary sense of the word — by a bolt of lightning. He makes an extraordinary recovery, and when the full-body bandage is removed he appears about 40. While he’s in his sickbed, we get glimpses of his youth, of his tragic called-off engagement to a woman named Laura — the love of his life. In time, those yahoo Nazis learn of his condition and want to study him; much later he bumps into a woman who is the exact likeness of Laura — Veronica — only an accident causes her to regress further back through ancient languages in trance-like states, helping Dominic to complete his life’s ambition.
Youth Without Youth is a love story, a mystery, and a welcome mindfuck, all enshrouded in philosophy, that — though it goes cold in its middle — successfully communicates the sacredness of its subject and its medium.