Despite an extremely far-flung premise and excursions into mystical territory, Francis Ford Coppola's Youth Without Youth carefully sidesteps many of its potential pitfalls. In lieu of the long, exhaustive, and semi-intelligible mess that one might expect from the film's premise, the picture instead feels relatively straightforward and easy to ascertain. Moreover, the top-drawer performances by lead Tim Roth and others make it generally painless (even pleasurable, for those of us open to a challenge) to sit through. The work fully evinces Coppola's gifts as a visual storyteller, his prowess with actors, and his deft hand at establishing onscreen atmosphere -- the qualities that have made him a legend in filmmaking circles.
The film suffers from a crippling flaw, however, that lies rooted in its narrative strategy. Most standard Hollywood narratives that deal with a "fantastic" premise are bound, by default, to a basic rule of screenwriting which states that the film's overall logical fabric must be established in the film's first ten minutes. In those expository first ten minutes, a scriptwriter can set up any basic logical principles (no matter how bizarre) -- from the main characters in the script talking out of their ears to shifting the weather with a wave of their hands -- and an audience will be predisposed to accept those "rules." The film must then create depth and emotional resonance within the boundaries of the "logical sphere" that it sets up. Youth's central folly is that it blissfully ignores, even pooh-poohs, this notion. The picture tells of a 70-year-old linguistic researcher named Dominic Matei (Roth), who is struck by a lightning bolt on the eve of the Second World War, which both reverses his age by several decades and logarithmically expands his intellectual capacities. That alone would provide enough material for an intriguing fantasy-themed drama, but it also works in telepathy, telekinesis, possession by a prehistoric Indian goddess, time travel, and a host of other stretches -- stretches because Coppola continues adding these elements 30 minutes, an hour, and even two hours into the film's run time. This is a narrative strategy that simply doesn't work. Coppola probably believed that he was beginning with a central locus and courageously expanding the boundaries of the film's logical scope; instead, it feels that a new, broader locus is constantly replacing the old -- a process that forces viewers to constantly wipe clean the slate of their presuppositions about the world presented in this film. And that is something most viewers simply aren't willing or prepared to do (witness the critical reactions to this movie).
More problematically, the film (which Coppola adapted from a novella by Romanian author Mircea Eliade) is clearly striving for an allegorical plane, and for all of its commendable lucidity regarding the actual story that unfurls onscreen, its themes are anything but lucid -- a very serious problem for an allegory. Most viewers will have little difficulty relaying what happens in the picture, but will run into massive roadblocks in determining what those events mean, aside from picking up on Coppola's obvious Nietzschean themes of der Übermensch that broadly define the second half of the film.
Still, as mentioned, Youth is not unpleasant to sit through, and many of the events that transpire onscreen are truly wild and fascinating. Coppola gives us astonishing scenes, such as female protagonist Laura's (Alexandra Maria Lara) nocturnal posturing on the floor of a seaside hotel room, as the goddess Shiva wracks her body with tumult and belts out prehistoric observations in Sanskrit. As Pauline Kael once quipped, "You don't get scenes like this in every movie."
Above and beyond all else, Youth Without Youth demands to be seen thanks to a career-defining performance by Romanian actress Lara. Lara not only outacts veterans Roth and Bruno Ganz, but carries the old-school Hollywood feline magnetism of actresses such as Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. She is utterly astonishing -- a classic Golden Age star born into the wrong era. This film provides ample evidence that Lara deserves to be one of Hollywood's top-billed actresses. Beautiful, maddeningly sensual, and dramatically overwhelming, she transcends the movie's flaws and, by her very presence, asserts her right to greatness.