Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Nov 04, 2007 12:17 am 
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This meandering recreation of a novella by Miorcea Eliade (famous as the author of The Myth of the Eternal Return),largely set and shot in Eliade's native Romania, is Coppola's first movie in over ten years. Its satisfyingly lush mise-en-scene and sweeping scope show the hand of a master, who's used the relatively economical facilities of Eastern Europe to remarkable effect. But the hand falters and the effort is misguided. Youth Without Youth is a pointless farrago of time travel and creaky science whose vaguely tendentious arc is puzzling, to say the least, and wholly uninvolving.

Don't take my word for it--it's been a while since I read that influential book by Eliade in college and I probably didn't really understand it all that well at the time--but the author, who's linked with Jung and taught at the University of Chicago, was keen on hierophany, a word for the manifestation of the sacred in the profane (i.e., the everyday world). He thought that was what myths were all about: they exist to describe the never-ending cyclical breakthroughs of the sacred into the world in the form of events he called hierophanies. Eliade was one of those thinkers, like Karl Jung and Joseph Campbell, who found a way to make sense of all the world's stories. (He also had a troubling sympathy for extreme right wing politics; but that probably need not concern us here and didn't seem to have influenced Coppola.)

Youth Without Youth is the tale of a seventy-year-old man, Professor Dominic Matei (Tim Roth), a brilliant but funbling professor in Romania in 1938 who's still grieving over a broken engagement with his lost love Laura (the protean Romanian actress Alexandra Maria Lara) forty years before and despairs of ever completing his lifelong project, a book of ridiculously overreaching ambition (rather like Mr. Casaubon's "Key to All Mythologies" in George Eliot's Middlemarch) that aims to trace all the ultimate origin of the world's languages back to a single ulitmate ur tongue (a somewhat dubious concept to begin with). Reviewers of the new film suggest--and Coppola may himself have confirmed this--that the director identifies with Matei's frustration due to the forever-delayed completion of his "Megalopolis£ project. And here is where Eliade's fantasy comes in: Matei's struck with a bolt of lightening that ought to have fried him down into a puddle of dark goo; but instead he quickly revives in hospital as a much younger man who, somehow or other--don't ask me--can bond anew with Laura and through her (because she seems to have become a medium time-traveling back to Sanscrit, then Babylonian and who knows what) to the origin of tongues.

But wait a minute. Is this the provocative, off-kilter Tim Roth who blended so well into Quentin Tarantino's feistier moments in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction? Do we really feel comfortable watching him earnestly seeking the most primitive of all tongues? Roth has proven himself as versatile as Ms.Lara, but somehow he lacks the gravitas or the good looks for this job.

Anyway, Professor Stanciulescu (Bruno Ganz), the supervising physician, wants to observe Matei's miraculous revival, but a Nazi doctor starts sneaking in to steal him away, using a sexy undercover agent known only as the "Woman in Room 6" (Alexandra Pirici). Things get hokier and hokier, as a Doppelganger Matei pops in representing his more rational, scientific side, and Matt Damon helps him change identities and slip away from the bad guys. Fast (but not very fast) forward to 1955 and Matei finds a young woman who exactly resembles his lost Laura. She's hiding in a cave after a car crash and speaking only Sanscrit.

This is like a series of "Twilight Zone" episodes cut together without proper transitions. Two hours isn't a terribly, terribly long time for a movie to run but it can seem pretty dragged out when things get this dicey, and it didn't help to have to stop right in the middle of all this and stare into space for a while during the traditional Italian "Intervallo". In the end the story of a Faustian search for the world's secrets and for eternal youth just sort of dribbles away into a finale that lacks finality--or even closing credits.

Seen in the Metropolitan Cinema on the Via del Corso in Rome, October 30, 2007. It was moved here from the recent Rome Film Festival, as was Roy Andersson's You the Living. Unlike the latter, it was being shown with the original soundtrack, but considering the stilted and often dubbed dialogue, that was less of a virtue than it might sound. The most interesting thing about this movie is Coppol's effort to produce grandiose effects using the bargain location of Romania. To some extent, that worked. But this isn't the first instance of Coppola going out on a limb on a project. This time a masterpiece most definitely was not the result. The conventional cinematography is attractive, but the occasional use of upside-down shots is pointless, and the music isn't very interesting.

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