Youth Without Youth: Coppola’s Feature, Inspired by Romanian Philosopher Mircea Eliade

Francis Ford Coppola’s “Youth Without Youth”  is his first feature in a decade. Challenging, complex, and richly-dense but also convoluted and utterly uncommercial, the film demands concentration due to its non-linear text and lack of conventional characters. Which means that it will sharply divide film critics and face hard time bringing audiences to see it.

“Youth Without Youth” marks Coppola’s return to his smaller, more personal and intimate films. This is a radical transition from his last picture, the formulaic and impersonal “The Rain Maker” in 1997. The new film is philosophical and metaphysical meditation, based on the work of Romanian-born, internationally renowned philosopher-author Mircea Eliade.

The ambitious, multi-layered, multi-nuanced narrative, directed as a European art film, though still bearing the singular signature of Coppola as auteur, demands concentration, and presents a challenge to viewers accustomed to linear storytelling, with a clear beginning, middle, and an end. Dealing with time and memory, and replete with metaphors and symbols, “Youth Without Youth” provides a field day for film scholars and viewers intrigued by such theoretical approaches as semiotics, structuralism, and psychoanalysis.

Whether conscious or not, with this film, Coppola enters into the turf of the most cerebral filmmakers in history, such as the French Alain Resanis (“Hirsohima Mon Amour,” Last Year at Marienbad,” “Providence”), the late Polish helmer Kieslowski (“Double Life of Veronique” and “Three Color Trilogy,” among others), and Ingmar Bergman (specifically “Wild Strawberries” and “The Seventh Seal”).

Since the work is densely rich, some viewers may get confused by the complicated structure of the text, which spans decades and continents, the evolution of the unconventional dramatic characters, the use of doubles as narrative device, the noirish tone in the tale of a doomed love, visual metaphors of lightning, roses, and umbrellas, and so on. But if you give a chance, you will be rewarded.

Financed by his own money, the relatively low-budgeted film was shot in Romania with mostly Romania cast. Sony Classics will release in December the film, which plays at the New York Film Fest and then at Roma/Cine/Fest in October.

At once epic and personal, this visually stunning picture spans four countries and is set in at least four continents, though unlike other films that boast such massive scale, scope, and structure, “Youth Without Youth” is not divided into chapters with titles and dates. And while intriguingly complex, the film is not convoluted or incoherent: Unfolding as a fragmented philosophical puzzle, in the end of the journey, the pieces fit it and add up to a coherent narrative that’s not in the least pretentious.

The tale begins in Romania in 1938, on Easter Sunday, when Dominic Matei (Tim Roth, one of few English-speaking actors in a mostly Romanian cast) takes a train from his home in Piatra Neamt to Bucharest. Arriving during a rainstorm, he plans to kill himself with strychnine contained in a blue envelope under his arm. Fate, however, intervenes, and the suicide is not to be. While opening his umbrella, he’s struck by lightning, collapses and rushed to the hospital.

Miraculously, he survives, and within a short time he’s transformed from an old man who’s 70 to a youngster. Equally baffled by the sight, his doctor, Professor
Stanciulescu (the great Swiss actor Bruno Ganz) claims that it’s the electrical discharge that triggered the regeneration. During his recovery, Dominic begins to be haunted by memories of Laura (Alexandra Maria Lara), the love of his youth, who broke their engagement because of his emotional distance; she later died at childbirth.

Single and career-oriented, Dominic has devoted his life to the study of the origin of language, based on his belief that language shapes human consciousness, plays meaningful role in ordering existence, and creates a sense of time. His theoretical ideas are part of a huge volume he’s struggling to write–before it’s too late. As a returning youth, he’s given a new physical appearance–there’s a funny sequence of acquiring new set of teeth. The experience scares Dominic but also thrills him, because it allows more time for research and writing his magnum opus.

Since these are war times in Europe, “external” politics intervene: Nazi spies and agents in Romania show interest in Dominic and his work. They treat him like a “famous freak,” hoping to benefit from his groundbreaking research.

Coppola, who also adapted Eliade’s novella, then introduces the motif of the double, in the form of a man who looks just like Dominic, offering an advice: “Tell the Professor what he wants to know, and ask him for a false identity.” Dominic obeys his “double” and leaves the hospital. The Professor awaits his arrival with diaries and a wire recorder. Through voice-over, Dominic continues to instruct: “Write down or record everything you think, see or read.” Soon, Dominic is recording various languages (Latin, Chinese, Armenian) and obsessively makes notations in his diary.

Along with Domink’s recovery of memory, his libido reappears, enabling Coppola to turn the saga into a more explicitly noir romance. The Professor warns his patient, “Beware of ‘the Woman in Room 6’ (Alexandra Pirici) in a mode that will satisfy Wong Kar-Wai and his dreamlike reveries. We know she is employed by the Secret Service, but Dominic naively holds that she’s “just a figment of erotic dreams.” Not for long, though, since in their next encounter, he spots a swastika on her garter belt, and a copy of Mein Kampf. The double then reappears to perform a miracle with red roses, which becomes another of the film’s recurrent motifs; Dominic is given two of the three roses, and we know that the third rose will reappear later with greater significance. Continuing with the noir espionage, the “Woman in Room 6” gives the Gestapo her recorded conversations with Dominic and then disappears.

Enters Dr. Josef Rudolf (Andre M. Hennicke), a Nazi scientist studying the effects of high-voltage electricity on animals, who steals files and demands custody of Dominic. In haste, the Professor prepares false papers for Dominic and sends him to neutral Switzerland. Cut to 1941 and the war years, when Dominic regains his learning powers that enable him to absorb whole books just by visualizing them. Driven by fear and paranoia, he changes his home periodically, while acquiring new skills of forging documents and preparing physical disguises. He survives by using his new abilities to predict the results of roulette wheels in casinos.

At a literary party, Dominic is approached by Dr. Monroe, a gerontologist who wants to discuss Staniciulescu’s work on rejuvenation. Warned by his double, “Be careful! He knows who you are,” Dominic denies his knowledge, but the stranger calls him by name (Mr. Matei) and persists claiming that time is the “supreme ambiguity of the human condition.” Dominic again s saved by the “Woman in Room 6,” who tells him that Monroe is Dr. Rudolf, and that the Gestapo had killed Staniciulescu. After shooting the femme fatale, Rudolf points the pistol at Dominic. Calling upon telekinetic powers, Dominic wills the gun to reverse direction and forces the scientist to shoot himself.

Cut to 1951, when we find Dominic living in Switzerland, creating a new language to record his fears about nuclear destruction. While hiking in the mountains, he encounters two sightseers, Gertrude and Veronica (also played by Alexandra Maria Lara), who ask for directions. Disregarding the impending storm, they proceed to walk to the top, with their umbrella.

Searching for the women, Dominic finds evidence of a lightning strike, their car in a ditch, and Gertrude’s corpse near Veronica’s burning umbrella. Hiding in a cave, Veronica now speaks Sanskrit, which Dominic barely understands. At the hospital, Veronica identifies herself as “Rupini,” a seventh-century disciple of Chandrakirti, whose work she was copying in the cave during the storm.

World-famous Sanskrit scholar Giuseppe Tucci (Marcel Iures) recommends a trip to India to test the factuality of her statements. The cave is found near Nepal, and awakened by a Pandit (Adrian Pintea), Veronica/Rupini goes into the cave and collapses. Later, only scattered bones and an old manuscript are found. Mystery prevails: Did she speak the truth Do the bones belong to her

After regaining consciousness, Rupini introduces herself as Veronica, recognizing Dominic from their earlier meeting. Fluent in German, French and English, she denies knowledge of any Oriental language or identity as Rupini. Tucci announces that Veronica was Rupini in earlier existence–a testament of the soul’s transmigration. Refusing to believe, and upset by the media, Veronica and Dominic run away.

Cut to a beautiful seaside villa in Malta, where Veronica begins to experience regressive episodes, speaking earlier languages like Egyptian and Babylonian. The fascinated Dominic records her words and then plays them back when she reverts to being Veronica. The devilish double reappears, urging Dominic to ignore her suffering until she regresses to the proto-language, a condition for his magnum opus to be completed. Dominic acts upon this advice, hiding mirrors so Veronica can’t see her unnatural, ravaging aging. Dominic now believes he is the catalyst for her regressions, due to their love in previous lives, and in a final tragic act of love, Dominic disappears from Veronica’s life, holding that he was stealing her youth.

Spoiler Alert

Saga ends in 1969, when Dominic returns to his hometown. Once again youthful, he realizes the validity of his theory. Taking his scholarly manuscript precipitates an argument with his double over the meaning of good and evil, and whether goals ever justify means. The double calls him a failure, because he left Veronica before she regressed to the origin of language.

In shattering the mirror, Dominic eliminates the apparition from his life and returns to the Caf Select to see his friends. Is he dreaming If he were dreaming, he would know about Hiroshima, the hydrogen bomb, and Neil Armstrong’s trip to the moon. Dominic then becomes the old man he was in the beginning, again cursed with memory lapses and rattling teeth. He rushes outside, and the next morning, his body is found in the snow. The voice of beloved Laura offers Dominic the third rose, and in one of the film’s most graceful images, the flower appears in his outstretched hand.

End of Spoiler Alert

While Tim Roth gives a commanding performance, “Youth Without Youth” is not a film about actors or acting. Moreover, it’s not easy to assess the quality of the acting, since most of the dialogue was dubbed in post-production, due to the fact that cast is largely Romanian with limited facilities in English. In this respect, Coppola’s new work deviates from his former films which are superbly performed by the best actors of the American cinema, from Brando, James Caan, Al Pacino, and Duvall, all the way to Kathleen Turner and Matt Dillon.

End Note

Dear readers: This review is already 2000 words, so in a future commentary piece, I’ll analyze the visual style and symbolism of the film, which though based on a Romanian novel and shot in Romania, continues to explore thematic and visual concerns in Coppola’s rich output of the past four decades.

Cast

DOMINIC MATEI (Tim Roth)
VERONICA/LAURA (Alexandra Maria Lara)
PROFESSOR STANCIULESCU (Bruno Ganz)
DR. JOSEF RUDOLF (Andr M. Hennicke)
PROFESSOR TUCCI (Marcel Iures)
WOMAN ROOM 6 (Alexandra Pirici)
PANDIT (Adrian Pintea)
DR. GAVRILA (Florin Piersic, Jr.).

Crew

PRODUCER, WRITER, DIRECTOR: Francis Ford Coppola
EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS Anahid Nazarian Fred Roos
CINEMATOGRAPHER Mihai Malaimare, Jr.
PRODUCTION DESIGNER Calin Papura
MAKEUP and HAIR DESIGNERS: Peter Swords King, Jeremy Woodhead
COSTUME DESIGNER Gloria Papura
SET DECORATOR Adi Popa
VISUAL EFFECTS UPP Prague
EDITOR & RE-RECORDING Walter Murch
COMPOSER Osvaldo Golijov
SOUND RECORDIST Mihai Bogos
ASSOCIATE EDITORS: Corina Stavila Sean Cullen
SOUND DESIGNER: Pete Horner
CASTING Florin Kevorkian, Karen Lindsay-Stewart
ART DIRECTORS Mircea Onisoru Ruxandra Ionica