Not counting his uncredited touch-up and doctoring work on the sci-fi flop 'Supernova', it had been a solid decade since Francis Ford Coppola last officially sat behind a director's chair. The once legendary master's last couple of for-hire studio projects were among the most impersonal and weakest in his career. Although 'The Rainmaker' was a competent enough commercial thriller, the execrable 'Jack' was an embarrassment in all respects. Neither showed any signs of having been made by the talent behind 'The Godfather' and 'Apocalypse Now'. Coppola was as dissatisfied with the state of his career as were audiences, and withdrew from filmmaking to go off and make wine instead. The announcement that he would return to the craft with a new project of his own choosing and development, one he's described as intensely personal and claims has reinvigorated his love of the medium, was certainly an intriguing development for the film scene.
Produced on a low budget and shot on digital video, 'Youth Without Youth' is, on its surface level, a blatant wish-fulfillment fantasy, and the director hasn't been shy to admit as much. Set in pre-WWII Romania, the story opens with Tim Roth in old age makeup as 70 year-old (not far from Coppola's own age) history professor Dominic Matei, decrepit and depressed, on the verge of suicide when he's ironically struck by lightning first. Miraculously, not only does the old man survive the event, but after a few months in the hospital emerges suddenly young again, with brand new teeth and hair, an incredible memory beyond normal human abilities, and (perhaps most importantly) a revitalized sexual libido. The kindly doctor tending to him (Bruno Ganz) publishes a study of this incredible case to the fascination of the medical community. Unfortunately, it also attracts the attention of the Nazis, who wish to experiment on the man in their hopes of building a superior Arian race through science. Matei flees to Switzerland, with spies in pursuit, and for a while the film appears to be an international thriller with supernatural overtones.
Instead, the plot skims over the next few years and turns to a new storyline in which Matei meets a young woman named Veronica who's a dead ringer for his long lost (and long dead) love. She is similarly struck by lightning and seems to regularly become possessed with the spirit of a 6th Century Indian girl named Rupini, whose regression through ancient languages towards the first proto-language ever spoken by humans could be the culmination of Matei's lifelong research. Dominic falls in love with Veronica, but the more he stays in her presence the more rapidly she ages and wastes away. Matei himself, meanwhile, has trouble distinguishing dreams from reality, and has developed a split personality of sorts, or possibly a doppelganger, who watches over the man and may have a hidden agenda.
Based on a novella by Romanian philosopher, historian, and author Mircea Eliade, 'Youth Without Youth' is a film rich in metaphysical themes, or at least wants to be. The story toys with ideas of time, consciousness, self, language, culture, religion, death, and more, but only ever touches on them without providing any particular insight. It's a well-crafted picture with some beautiful imagery, and Coppola adds many auteurist affectations such as enigmatic flashbacks, montages, and dream sequences photographed upside down or sideways, but it never comes to anything. The plot is barely coherent, and worse is dull and meanders, dropping story threads left and right. The dialogue is almost entirely too "on the nose," with characters sounding out the author's philosophical ideas rather than behaving like real, living people. They act with no motivation other than to progress the story from one important theme to the next.
Tim Roth delivers a decent, if sometimes mannered performance, but the character is a cipher and it's impossible to connect with him emotionally. Alexandra Maria Lara (Hitler's secretary in 'Downfall') is more engaging as both Veronica and Rupini. Matt Damon pops in for an extremely brief cameo in what may possibly be an unacknowledged carryover of his character from 'The Good Shepherd'. The rest of the international supporting cast are not so good, sadly, though the stiff dialogue they're forced to speak is likely the primary culprit.
'Youth Without Youth' is not an aggressively bad film (the way 'Jack' is, for example), but nor is it the triumphant return to form that Coppola wants and believes it to be. It has many interesting ideas on its mind, which is more than most movies these days can say. I just wish it followed through with them, or offered a more compelling narrative.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Youth Without Youth' comes to Blu-ray from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, who have of course programmed the disc to automatically start with one of those annoying promos advertising the format. When it finally gets to them, the disc's Java-encoded menus jump around the screen in a manner that some programmer must have thought was clever, but for the user is just kind of confusing and annoying.
Although about 90% of the film's soundtrack is in English, selected scenes have dialogue in foreign languages (including dead languages no longer in common usage). English subtitles appear by default, half-in and half-out of the letterboxed movie image, which will make those scenes unwatchable for projection owners with 2.35:1 screens.
Shot on HD digital video at a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, 'Youth Without Youth' has a strikingly vivid image. The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer impresses in its popping detail, especially during close-ups. Some scenes look slightly edgy, and it's possible that a bit of artificial sharpening may have been applied, but not distractingly so. The picture has next to no grain or noise, just a touch during dark scenes, certainly nothing objectionable. Black levels are solid, and shadow detail is well delineated. Colors are crisp and clean. Some scenes are shot with heavy color filters that flatten their dimensionality, but many others exhibit incredible clarity and depth.
The movie's photography doesn't exactly look film-like, nor was it necessarily meant to. Coppola and his cinematographer have given the picture some rich textures that showcase the High-Def DV format's strengths without looking too video-ish.
The lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack is also a knockout. The opening scene is sure to grab your attention with its vibrant immediacy and aggressive use of the entire surround soundstage. Throughout the film, Osvaldo Golijov's lush score is delivered with enveloping breadth and warm musical fidelity from the highest violin strings to the lowest strumming cello. Thunder strikes hit the subwoofer channel with clean, dynamic impact, and gun shots (though few in the movie) ring out with stark clarity.
Dialogue is creatively spread to different speakers during scenes with the main character's split personality. While technically only encoded in 5.1 format, the track will also pan with pinpoint precision through a full 7.1 speaker configuration if decoded with ProLogic IIx processing.
The Blu-ray carries over all of the supplements found on the comparable DVD edition. Neither is exactly feature-packed.
As Francis Ford Coppola's return to filmmaking, 'Youth Without Youth' is a disappointment, if not quite a total failure. On the plus side, the Blu-ray has excellent picture and sound. The more adventurous film buffs out there may want to give it a rent.