By Matt Singer
[Photo: “Youth Without Youth,” Sony Pictures Classics, 2007]
Francis Ford Coppola clearly finds something very cinematic in the idea of someone who not as old as they look. Why else would he make “Jack,” a movie about 45-year-old Robin Williams as a fifth grader, and now “Youth Without Youth,” about a decrepit linguistics professor named Dominic Matei who receives the gift of a second life from an errant bolt of lightning? Oddly, though Coppola and Matei are both intellectually curious men, they seem strangely disinterested in this incredible turn of events. Imagine if Peter Parker discovered he had the proportionate strength of the spider, shrugged his shoulders and went right back to working on his science fair project.
Though Coppola would almost certainly never couch it in these terms, he’s made a comic book flick, albeit one that looks like a beautiful old Italian movie and is based on a Romanian novel. Once Matei (Tim Roth) undergoes his transformation, he gains all sorts of cool new powers to go along with his rejuvenated exterior, including mind control and a rather unique take on the concept of “speed reading.” He even gains a scheming split personality who speaks to him through reflective surfaces, not unlike Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin. And yet there is never a moment where Matei takes his nose out of his books about the origins of language to consider what’s happened to him and go “Holy crap!”
To a certain degree, “Youth Without Youth” is like one of Matei’s ancient library volumes: dusty, stodgy and filled with old-fashioned turns of phrase. Admittedly, much if not all of this is intentional, and suggests the film’s title in the same way that even after Matei sheds about 30 years of physical age he still carries his arms and his face the way an old man would (it’s one of the nicer aspects of Roth’s performance). Coppola and cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. focus on lighting and composition and striking use of color, particularly a red in flowers and even a swastika that is so rich it appears to stain the very film stock, staying on screen even as the rest of the images from one scene begin to fade to the next. If the camera moves even once in a scene, it’s a lot. Everything is restrained and reserved, and even the more intense, action-oriented scenes are approached with a kind of academic or painterly spirit.
But the movie is called “Youth Without Youth,” not “Life Without Life,” and I must admit that I found much of it frustratingly inert (so, apparently, did the gentlemen next to me at the screening, who fell so deeply asleep he actually snored through most of the second hour). After Matei’s second life takes him from a Romanian hospital to Nazi Germany, he finds a woman named Veronica (Alexandra Maria Lara) who looks remarkably like Matei’s great lost love Laura (also Lara). Before the “Vertigo” overtones become too oppressive, Veronica becomes possessed by an ancient soul named Rupini and further experiments lead Matei to believe he can guide her regressions to help support his research into the history of early man. When Veronica isn’t twitching and speaking in tongues, her affair with Matei is supposed to be the sort of unquenchable love that even death itself cannot stop. But Roth and Lara can’t sustain enough chemistry to last a typical coffee break, let alone a few centuries. And yeah, part of Matei’s flaw as a character is his willingness to prefer his work to his love, but with a relationship this chilly, who could blame him?
“Youth Without Youth” is clearly a personal film but that’s about all that’s clear about it. Coppola feels something strongly here, but what exactly? The film is about massive themes and concepts love and death and time and art and communication but at its core, there isn’t a central idea or compelling story or marvelous performance holding it all together. Magic bolts of lightning provide youth, but not always great inspiration.