Ohhhh boy. I decided to watch Francis Ford Coppola’s latest release, Youth Without Youth. That’s right, Francis Ford Coppola. The same guy that directed The Godfather and Apocalypse Now. He hasn’t done a movie in about a decade (do we count Supernova?) and he’s now able to release self-financed films that cater to no one but his own desires. Which, as it turns out, is a scary, scary thing.
Youth Without Youth could possibly be classified under the genre of magical realism. The story begins in pre-WWII Europe with an aging academic, Dominic, in poor health. As he’s crossing the street one day, he’s struck by a bolt of lightning, charring him. Miraculously, he survives and is taken to the hospital and put in a full body cast to heal. The doctors need to identify him and through a system of communication based on pressure from his hand, work out that he’s 70 years old. Except that when they start taking the cast off, he looks no older than 40. And all his old teeth fall out only to be replaced by strong, new teeth. As he heals, he finds that indeed, his body has somehow become younger. His main doctor who’s studying his condition, understands that public knowledge of this event puts Dominic at risk for experimentation from the Nazis and concocts a new identity for him. As time goes on, he discovers he has another personality that comes alive when he sleeps, one that grants him superpowers of sorts, including incredible memory, allowing him to memorize languages in a single night. It also has a strong sense of self-preservation, arranging the murders of certain Nazi spies snooping around him.
All this comprises only the first half of the story, with lots of other cockamamie story devices and plot lines introduced. For example, his life’s work is to study the origin of language and human consciousness. He happens across a woman in the mountains one day who seems to be a reincarnation of a lover from his youth who (through baffling circumstances) regresses into a past life of a 14th century Indian woman. Dominic decides to study her condition and eventually falls in love with her. The woman keeps having episodes of regressing into past lives, going back earlier and earlier in time, speaking more and more ancient and arcane languages. Dominic knows that his condition has something to do with this, and if he allows this to keep continuing he will finally have what he seeks: a recording of the linguistic origins of the human race. But it’s taking a terrible toll on the woman, causing her to age physically beyond her youthful years. He must decide whether to use her to his own advantage or to do what’s right and leave her before she dies of old age.
If any of this sounds compelling, I’m sorry for telling it to you wrong. Because the way it’s presented in this movie is rather muddled and uninteresting. The movie is a goddamn mess. I know Coppola’s supposed to be one of the masters of film. Then why is Youth Without Youth a catastrophe of storytelling? The plot is nigh-incoherent. The main characters are introduced without a single shred of character development or backstory and remain that way for the entire film. By the end of the two hour runtime, I still had no fuckin’ clue who Dominic was. There’s so much trying to go on at once that the story commits one of the gravest sins and tries to tell, not show. There’s several points in the movie that rely on blocks of plot exposition told by narrative voice-overs or one of the hoariest, dustiest storytelling devices ever: the spinning newspaper. And yet with all this clunky exposition, the movie still finds time to blip past important plot information, leaving the view disoriented more often than not.
The acting’s fairly flat, too. Tim Roth isn’t given much to work with as Dominic from the script. It also doesn’t help that Tim Roth is the acting equivalent of French vanilla ice cream. Bruno Ganz is in the supporting cast as Dominic’s doctor, and he’s even worse. He has a thick accent and it usually sounds like he’s happy enough just being able to deliver his lines in English, never mind putting any sort of emotion behind it. And the dialogue usually sounds like Coppola took screenwriting lessons from M. Night Shyamalan. There’s several moments in the film that are so patently ridiculous that you’ll probably laugh rather than rub your chin in thought like Coppola was obviously going for. The few saving graces artistry-wise are the beautiful soundtrack by Osvaldo Golijov and a few instances of handsome cinematography.