Youth Without Youth

Not just fans of Francis Ford Coppola will be disappointed by the mishmash plotting and stilted script of “Youth Without Youth,” the master’s first helming effort in 10 years.

Dominic Matei - Tim Roth Laura/Veronica/Rupini - Alexandra Maria Lara Professor Stanciulescu - Bruno Ganz Dr. Josef Rudolf - Andre M. Hennicke Woman in Room 6 - Alexandra Pirici With: Marcel Iures, Adrian Pintea, Florin Piersic Jr., Matt Damon. (English, German, Sanskrit, Italian dialogue)

Not just fans of Francis Ford Coppola will be disappointed by the mishmash plotting and stilted script of “Youth Without Youth,” the master’s first helming effort in 10 years. Overly talky tale spans the mid-20th century, following an elderly professor whose miraculous return to youth offers the chance to complete his magnum opus and rediscover lost love. Attempting to harness multiple genres, pic is brought down by ponderous dialogue (much of it dubbed) and an inability to connect with its characters. Limited bicoastal opening is set for Dec. 14, though “Youth Without Youth” will translate to cinemas without audiences.

Long stuck on completing his unrealized “Megalopolis” project, Coppola found Romanian philosopher/author Mircea Eliade’s novella about the limitations of time a compensating balm for his own frustrations. Perhaps Eliade’s investigations into Jungian theory and a nascent form of New Age spirituality also appealed, not to mention the excitement of getting back to the kind of artistic control only possible with low-budget filmmaking.Decamping to Romania (with a small section shot in Bulgaria), Coppola used mostly young local talent and had the Balkan nations stand in for Switzerland, Malta and even India. Unfortunately, the results are as phony as the back projection and lack the kind of Eastern European magical realism that would have made it resonate.

On the eve of WWII, brilliant Professor Dominic Matei (Tim Roth) despairs at ever finishing his life’s work, a study of the origin of languages. Still grieving for Laura (Alexandra Maria Lara), who broke off their engagement 40 years earlier, Dominic journeys from his home in northeastern Romania to Bucharest, where he’s struck by lightning right before a suicide attempt.

Not only does he miraculously survive, but Dominic’s whole body reverts from his 70-year-old state to the youthful, priapic self he was decades earlier. His doctor, kindly Professor Stanciulescu (Bruno Ganz) is keen to study this remarkable transformation, but as word spreads, the Nazis come calling, in the guise of a voluptuous woman known simply as the “Woman in Room 6” (Alexandra Pirici). Stanciulescu is suspicious; could it be that subtle swastika on the woman’s garter belt?

Meanwhile, out of Dominic’s fevered dreams comes another Dominic, a doppelganger representing his purely scientific side. Like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde if the two ever spoke directly, the “good” Dominic becomes enthralled by his crueler, colder other half, who views his regeneration as a means of accomplishing the Faustian goal of achieving all knowledge. Soon Dominic merely has to pass his hand over a closed book — to the cheesy accompaniment of unearthly light and electric sizzles — and the contents are transferred to his advanced brain.

But the Nazis are in pursuit, so he heads off to Switzerland, helped by a border guard who assures him, in just one of numerous stilted lines, “My cooperation with the Nazis is only symbolic.” All this added intelligence turns Dominic into a Jason Bourne of sorts as he expertly forges new papers for himself (but wait, here’s Bourne himself, as an uncredited Matt Damon unsuccessfully offers the protection of the U.S. government).

Jump to 1955, and Dominic chances upon a dead ringer for his lost love, now named Veronica, cowering in a cave after a car crash and speaking only Sanskrit. Discovery forces Dominic to choose whether or not to seize the opportunity to complete his research, at the expense of Veronica’s ability to lead a normal life.

By the time this stage is reached, the serial-worthy plot has moved through any number of genres without holding onto any of them. Perhaps Coppola’s affinity for a character obsessed by unrealized projects was too close to allow him to see the piecemeal nature of his script, bogged down by endless chatter. Immortality and the ramifications of eternal life, on both ethical and emotional levels, have been dealt with much more effectively in works varying from “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (referenced toward the end) and Janacek’s superb, emotionally resonant opera “The Makropoulos Case,” a far more powerful analysis of the cruelty of time.

Presumably, Coppola chose to dub most of the film because the non-native English speakers needed help to make their lines clear, but the device, though generally well done, does nothing to help lackluster delivery in the minor roles. Roth certainly knows how to hold the screen, though surprisingly for such a fine actor, he resorts to lip-curling and similar tics to signal the difference between the two Dominics. Ganz has little to do, while the lovely Lara (“Downfall”) struggles not to appear ridiculous as she spouts ancient tongues in scenes that could have come from old Universal “Mummy” flicks. Just like Virginia Christine, she deserves better.

Shot largely with a fixed camera, lensing by young Romanian d.p. Mihai Malaimare Jr. favors basic but not dull formats, with many scenes either bathed in a golden light or a moon-blue glow. While Balkan locations don’t completely convince as Malta or India, that’s a minor quibble, especially considering pic’s overall deliberate, often attractive artificiality. Occasional sideways and upside-down shots, however, contribute nothing, while Osvaldo Golijov’s overly sweet orchestrations give too much away too soon.

Print screened in Rome lacked closing credits.

Popular on Variety

Youth Without Youth

Production: A Sony Pictures Classics (in North America)/BIM Distribuzione (in Italy) release of an American Zoetrope presentation of an SRG Atelier (Romania)/Pricel (France)/BIM Distribuzione (Italy) production. (International sales: Pathe Pictures Intl., London.) Produced by Francis Ford Coppola. Executive producers, Anahid Nazarian, Fred Roos. Directed, written by Francis Ford Coppola, based on the novella by Mircea Eliade.

Crew: Camera (color/B&W, widescreen, HD-to-35mm), Mihai Malaimare Jr.; editor, Walter Murch; music, Osvaldo Golijov; production designer, Calin Papura; art directors, Ruxandra Ionica, Mircea Onisoru; set decorator, Adi Popa; costume designer, Gloria Papura; sound, Mihai Bogos; sound designer, Pete Horner; associate producer, Masa Tsuyuki; assistant director, Anatol Reghintovschi; second unit director, Roman Coppola; casting, Florin Kevorkian. Reviewed at Rome Film Festival (Premiere), Oct. 20, 2007. Running time: 124 MIN.

Cast: Dominic Matei - Tim Roth Laura/Veronica/Rupini - Alexandra Maria Lara Professor Stanciulescu - Bruno Ganz Dr. Josef Rudolf - Andre M. Hennicke Woman in Room 6 - Alexandra Pirici With: Marcel Iures, Adrian Pintea, Florin Piersic Jr., Matt Damon. (English, German, Sanskrit, Italian dialogue)

More Scene

  • Taika Waititi Jojo Rabbit Premiere

    Why Director Taika Waititi Decided to Play Adolf Hitler in 'Jojo Rabbit'

    “Fox Searchlight blackmailed me into doing it,” Taika Waititi told Variety of playing Adolf Hilter in “Jojo Rabbit” at the film’s premiere at American Legion Post 43 on Tuesday night in Hollywood. Staying mum when asked which other actors had been on his wish list to play the role, Waititi explained why he eventually decided [...]

  • Jessica Biel Limetown Premiere

    Why 'Limetown' Star & Producer Jessica Biel Thought the Show Was Based on a True Story

    In a world of increasingly outlandish headlines, the story behind “Limetown” — in which an entire community in rural Tennessee disappears overnight — seems plausible. Even Jessica Biel, who executive produces and stars in the Facebook Watch television adaptation of the hit 2015 podcast, was initially convinced that it was real. “I just thought I [...]

  • Yahya Abdul-Mateen II Watchmen

    Yahya Abdul-Mateen II Talks 'Watchmen,' 'Matrix 4': 'I'm Not Nervous At All'

    Yahya Adbul-Mateen II is facing some serious pressure. The actor is in the middle of a massive career surge, taking on roles in HBO’s “Watchmen” and the upcoming “Matrix 4” — and with those roles, the expectations of their fans.  “I have the responsibility of upholding something that was already done while also bringing in [...]

  • David Lindelof Watchmen Premiere

    'Watchmen' Creator Damon Lindelof Weighs in on Martin Scorsese's Marvel Criticisms

    Damon Lindelof disagrees with Martin Scorsese about his recent claims that Marvel movies don’t qualify as cinema. The director’s proclamation, along with the polarized critical reception of “Joker,” are the latest salvos in a long history of questioning comic book movies’ place in cinematic history. The lingering question: Can superhero fare be considered “high art?” [...]

  • Anne Hathaway Modern Love

    Anne Hathaway Talks Mental Health Awareness, Playing a Bipolar Woman on Amazon's 'Modern Love'

    In Amazon Prime’s upcoming “Modern Love,” Anne Hathaway sheds light on an important facet of living with mental health issues, playing a bipolar woman who struggles with dating. “We’re all becoming more sensitive, wiser and more cognizant of gentility, and especially emotional gentility. I think those conversations are starting to happen. And I think the desire [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content