Starring: Tim Roth, Alexandra Maria Lara, Bruno Ganz, Marcel Iures, Andre Hennicke
Francis Ford Coppola's first film after 10 years is, next to David Lynch, the most European film made by an American filmmaker that I've seen in a while. It is an ambitious effort that has plenty of its shortcomings, but overall, it is definitely the most interesting piece of work Coppola has made in 20 years or more.
The film was pretty much ravished in America, but it did find its ground among the European public. This is completely understandable, since Youth Without Youth inhabits a distinct European style, in terms of story (Coppola wrote the screenplay, but the original story comes from Romanian writer Marcia Eliade's novella that bears the same name as the film), pacing and cinematography (truly beautiful piece of work by Mihai Malaimare Jr.). Even the film's dialogue is quite often dubbed, which gives it a feeling of earlier Italian cinema. The comparisons don't end there – similarities with Fellini (the dreamy, gloomy atmosphere), or Tarkovsky (the metaphysical and philosophical themes) and the aforementioned Lynch (themes of duality, dreams and the overall open-to-intepretation storyline) are for sure not coincidental. Therefore, knowing my experience from these directors, it is perhaps a mistake to review this feature after only one viewing, but on the other hand, it will be interesting how this one stands the test of time.
Coppola rarely did something similar to this, which is commendable, but this film isn't nearly as wonderful as his best work from the 70's, or the finest pieces of the aforementioned great filmmakers. The film is messy, trying to encompass far too many themes, but hardly giving any kind of interesting conclusion to the questions posed, involving immortality, reincarnation, aftermath of a nuclear holocaust or the origin of language. This was maybe even intentional on Coppola's side, since the film is basically a love story, between the main protagonists, Tim Roth's Romanian linguistic Dominic Matei, a 70-year old who after being struck by a lightning, „de-ages“ 30 years and does not seem to get any bit older afterwards, and Alexandra Maria Lara's Veronica/Laura, who is possessed by her past-life incarnations. Tim Roth does an admirable job in creating a complex and tortured character; I especially consider his alter-ego, that Dominic develops during the film, very entertaining and menacing in a subtle way. Roth does try his best with the dialogue that does get unnatural in many of the film's scenes and definitely presents one of the best things about the film. Alexandra Maria Lara is not too far behind, although her section of the film is definitely the weakest one. The Nazi storyline, or the first act of the film, ends in a quite sudden and contrived way, shifting the perspective to Lara's character in the second half, where the pacing gets problematic and the plot becomes too convoluted. Unfortunately, there is hardly any emotional resonance to the Dominic/Veronica relationship. As soon as the film gets back to Romania in the final act, it does pick up, offering an enigmatic ending that simply begs for a second viewing. A performance that didn't work at all is the one by the great Bruno Ganz, who plays Dominic's doctor, stating awkward and painfully obvious lines (again, not his fault alone – Coppola didn't do that great this time as a screenwriter). There is even an amusing Matt Damon cameo in there, who worked with Coppola on 1997's The Rainmaker.
On the positive side, the film is shot beautifully on locations all around Europe. The dark and sinister atmosphere, perfected through stunning cinematography and haunting Osvaldo Golijov's musical score is easily my favorite thing about the film. It's a shame Tim Roth didn't get many praises for his performance, that is some of the best things he's ever done (the bloke did some great character work in the 90's). Coppola's latest accomplishment turned out to be the case where the style prevailed over the substance, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but in this case, one of the best American directors in his own time did leave me wanting more.