Francis Ford Coppola, il padrone of Bay Area filmmakers and creator of some of the most memorable movie moments of the last 35 years, has been in something of a slump.
By some critical reckonings he hasn’t made a truly praiseworthy film since his overarching masterpieces “The Godfather,” “The Conversation,” “The Godfather, Part II” and “Apocalypse Now.” He took serious stabs at period comedy (“Peggy Sue Got Married”), period topical drama (“Gardens of Stone”), period white elephants (“The Cotton Club,” “Tucker,” “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”), and at least one indulgent personal spectacle, “One from the Heart.”
But even the best of these only possessed fleeting moments of the grandeur that was Coppola in the ’70s, when he captured the zeitgeist in a silver flask. Still, he kept at it.
For his latest, “Youth Without Youth,” Coppola reaches into the heart of an antique Europe with the elliptical, and ultimately elusive, story of an undistinguished man magically bestowed with a gift. While crossing the street in Bucharest, Romania in 1938, linguistics professor Dominic Matei (Tim Roth) is struck by lightning. He survives, but soon after begins to look and feel younger. His doctor (veteran German actor Bruno Ganz) is convinced the electric charge triggered a regenerative process in the old man. The years are dropping off him.
It’s a blessed miracle at first, but strange things happen.
The previously suicidal Dominic is suddenly haunted by dreams of his lost love, Laura (Alexandra Maria Lara, from the recent “Control”), and a doppelgänger image of himself in the mirror threatens to take charge of his life. Nazi German spies show up in search of “the most valuable human specimen on Earth,” and even a CIA agent takes interest (an uncredited Matt Damon).
Coppola and crew film all this distorted reality in a wonderfully old-European-meets-new-technology manner. Cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. and editor Walter Murch achieve visual poetry reminiscent of Bernardo Bertolucci, Guillermo del Toro and Hungarian filmmaker Ildikó Enyedi, whose “My 20th Century” echoes repeatedly.
But thereare writing and casting problems. Roth seems particularly out of place. Such a somber fantasy relies on our caring about the characters, but we never develop more than a curiosity about Matei. He’s a lonely man who constructs a dual life in his mind, but he’s unable to relate to the people he meets.
So what does he really gain with all that extra time? A lifetime of doubt, it seems. Likewise, we can see what Coppola is trying to evoke in “Youth Without Youth,” but it remains tantalizingly outside his grasp.
Youth Without Youth **
Written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, based on the novel by Mircea Eliade
Running time: 2 hours, 4 minutes