'Youth': Coppola's Dizzying Spin On Fleeting Time

Tim Roth and Alexandra Maria Lara star in "Youth Without Youth," Francis Ford Coppola's existential return to cinema.
Tim Roth and Alexandra Maria Lara star in "Youth Without Youth," Francis Ford Coppola's existential return to cinema. (Sony Pictures Classics)
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 11, 2008

It's an unwritten rule that any venerated director who returns from a 10-year absence gets to write his own creative ticket. Especially Francis Ford Coppola. Even if the movie is the weirdest, most challenging -- for filmmaker and audience -- of his career.

"Youth Without Youth" is Coppola's valiant attempt to grapple with life's most Stephen Hawking-baiting imponderables. How do we defeat death? Are we all somehow connected within the tail-chasing recesses of the time-space continuum? Coppola evokes these and other questions in what amounts to a journey of the body and the mind for a linguistics professor (a somber Tim Roth) who's struck by lightning in 1938 in the streets of Bucharest.

Although many movies have addressed daunting philosophical mysteries before, few have delved into the abstract as single-mindedly as Coppola's latest effort. Unfortunately, though the filmmaker's courage of conviction is provocative and fascinating, it's also distancing. We can't follow him into that hole.

Before his startling accident, the 70-year-old Dominic has been contemplating suicide, depressed that time has finally defeated his mission to study the origins of language. But as a startled Romanian doctor (a stilted Bruno Ganz) and Nazi spies watch with interest, Dominic reacquires the robustness of his 40s, and his intellectual faculties go into overdrive. Suddenly, he can understand many ancient languages, including Sanskrit and ancient Egyptian. He soon finds himself contemplating those aforementioned eternal mysteries.

When he meets Veronica (Alexandra Maria Lara), a woman who resembles Laura, his lost love, Dominic is also infused with romantic purpose. Veronica, who has also been struck by lightning, suddenly believes she is the reincarnated soul of an ancient Indian mystic. But couldn't she also be the transmigrated spirit of Laura, who left him for another man, only to die in childbirth?

We have entered "Vertigo" territory now, as Dominic becomes obsessed with the mirror image of a past love. But we aren't feeling poetically stirred by Coppola's obvious referencing of Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 classic. We are just feeling dizzy.

For even the most dedicated viewers, the going gets all but incomprehensible at this point. We flit our way around the 20th century, in locales in Romania, Switzerland, Malta and even India, as the story traverses time, space and frankly, coherence. And when Dominic meets his double (Roth with a different frown), a sort of intellectual doppelganger who accompanies him everywhere, we can only shake our heads in bewilderment. It's a serious rupture in the trust between artist and audience, as he takes meta into his own hands. And he proves that even the best of our film artists can lose sight of what this medium is all about: entertaining, enlightening and including its audience.

Give credit where it's due: "Youth Without Youth," which Coppola adapted from Mircea Eliade's novella of the same name, is a magnificent experience for the eyes. Recurring images of gorgeously red rosebuds and masterfully choreographed scenes, such as an automobile ride through an autumnal, sunlit avenue, remind us what a master of visual design Coppola has always been. But in his more important purpose -- to evoke the ineffable -- Coppola spirals too deeply into his own conceptual, convoluted vortex. In his zeal, Coppola (whose last directed feature was 1997's "The Rainmaker") forgets to keep at least one pinkie finger attached to the rest of us.

Youth Without Youth (124 minutes, at AMC Loews Shirlington 7 and Landmark's E Street Cinema) is rated R for sexuality and nudity.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company