Francis Ford Coppola's latest film, Youth Without Youth, has received positive reviews from about 25 percent of critics who've seen it. That's the kind of stunning critical success that films like Hostel VI: Bloodsnot and Harry Potter Sits and Stares at Stuff can only dream about.
Coppola, who is now 1 million years old, has nonetheless made a tremendously interesting and entertaining film. Well, interesting and entertaining to that vast audience of people who've read the entire corpus of works by Romanian intellectual Mircea Eliade, have seen all the films of Carl Theodor Dreyer and F.W. Murnau, and are fascinated by 1930s pulp heroes, Nazi conspiracy theories, the origins of language and the ancient history of India and the Near East. Oh, and it helps to have advanced degrees in philosophy and the history of religions. So, if that's you, you're in for the best time you've had since that weekend when the San Diego ComicCon was held in the same hotel as the Annual Meeting of the International Society for the Study of Archaic Religious Doctrine.
The plot of Youth Without Youth is lifted from the Eliade novella of the same name. For those unfamiliar with Eliade's work, he's kind of a more high-brow, less touchy-feely-new-age Joseph Campbell. It's like if Joseph Campbell were smarted up so that smarty pantses would like him and not be embarrassed to read his books while begging for change in front of public universities.
The film starts in the 1930s, as Professor Dominic Matei (Tim Roth) turns 70 years old. Luckily, he's struck by lighting, and the flesh is burned off of 90 percent of his body. While in the hospital, he grows new teeth, skin and hair, and comes out looking like a 40-year-old man, or as much like a 40-year-old man as Tim Roth can look.
Prior to the flash-frying, Matei had been working for years on the problem of the origin of language, but he had been unable to finish his work, though he had come to the conclusion that language originated some time in the past. He was so consumed by this work that, 40 years earlier, his girlfriend (played by the lithesome Alexandra Maria Lara) left him, because even though she looked great naked, he was all, "Can we do it later, because I'm reading about ancient Assyrian verbal structures?" and if you say that to a woman, you can count on spending the holidays alone.
However, the lightning strike completely transforms Matei: Afterward, he not only thinks that maybe he should have been nicer to his lady friend; he's also acquired super-powers. Like, he can shoot some kind of mind-control death beam, and also, if he wants to learn Chinese, he can totally learn Chinese.
Matei decides to use his super powers to help him with his research in linguistics, which is totally not what Spiderman or Hawkwoman would do with superpowers, so at least he's not a copycat. He's also not exactly courageous, and spends most of his time running from Nazis. (The Nazis were the well-dressed midcentury political movement who invented the term "enhanced interrogation," so, you know: evil.)
Time passes, but Matei's lightning-powered physique never ages, plus he discovers a 24-year-old woman who looks exactly like his long-dead lost love, and, who knows, maybe it is her reincarnated, because if lightning can give you superpowers, then cute chicks should be able to rise from the dead.
Realizing the error he made the last time he got some trim, Matei doesn't treat her as an impediment to his studies. Rather, she transforms into the very embodiment of his research, channeling ancient priestesses so he can write down the syntax of Proto-Elamite. It's a process that brings him closer to her, but threatens her life and sanity.
This is all part of Eliade's theme of recurring religious motifs (that's the bit that Joseph Campbell ripped off in his popular works like The Hero With a Thousand Faces and Look At Me! I'm Joseph Campbell!): Matei recurs as himself; his fiancée recurs in a new time; and she channels the recurrence of long-dead figures. Most importantly, Matei repeats in some way his essential flaw: his inability to balance love for another person with the drive for success.
Coppola wraps up the academic material in the clothes of a 1930s pulp novel and the cinematic style of a low-budget German expressionist film. In hallucinatory sequences, the camera rests upside down or on its side. Voices echo; swastikas appear on naked thighs; and ancient priestesses make collect calls to the present.
All of this is cool stuff, in an über-nerdy sort of way, and if you're into that, you'll probably get a kick out of it. Unfortunately, the film offers no explanation for the non-nerdy, and will probably seem like a confused and muddled mess. It does seem as though Coppola simply made reference to everything he's a fan of, from silent cinema to the myth of the dying and rising hero, and from hot naked Nazi chicks to the mental powers of midcentury mystery men.
I think, though, that if you are hip to his references, and you watch closely, the film really does hang together. It's dreamy and overlong, and becomes sodden and silly at times, but no more so than the works it celebrates.
But my guess is that for most viewers, the first 20 minutes or so will seem captivating, and then the film will grow increasingly tiresome. Still, I applaud Coppola for making such a difficult, personal film, and for eschewing the commercial success which he could easily have had by making Godfather Versus Predator. Instead, he made a film for love, and not for money, as though there was still something in the world that couldn't be bought.