When Youth Without Youth, the first movie made in over a decade by Francis Ford Coppola, arrived in theaters last December, the 69-year-old filmmaker said the project was financed by the profits from his successful vineyards located in California. Being a fan of Coppola’s line of wines, I figured it was safe to assume that my purchases over the years had a hand, albeit a small one, in bringing this film to the big screen.
And for that, you have my most sincere apologies.
Set in pre-World War II Europe, Youth Without Youth centers around an elderly linguistics professor named Dominic Matei (Tim Roth), miraculously restored to his youth (well, his late 30s anyway) after being struck by lightning. At first a piece of comatose, charbroiled professor, Dominic snaps back to life and astounds his doctor (Bruno Ganz) with his swift recovery, which includes new teeth and smooth skin.
Given the time and place, the Nazis soon enter the scene. Since they struck out nabbing the Lost Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail (sorry, couldn’t resist), the Third Reich learns of Dominic’s rejuvenation and wants to harness his new abilities. On the run, Dominic keeps one step ahead of the Aryans in an attempt to finish his life’s work. Things get more convoluted, I mean, unpredictable when Dominic falls for Veronica (Alexandra Maria Lara), a young woman who reminds him of a lost love and has also had a fateful encounter with lightning.
If lightning does indeed have the ability to cause people to return to a younger, more vibrant state of their life, then I really wish that one had hit Coppola before he began work on this movie. Perhaps then he would have returned to the phase of his career when he could coherently tell a story and deliver a great film, instead of being a self-indulgent filmmaker content with releasing an incoherent, pretentious pile of bunk, as is the case here. I honestly can’t remember the last time I sat in a movie theater dumbfounded from start to finish like I did with this film (that wasn’t a sequel).
My horrifying screening ordeal last fall aside, I was willing to give Coppola the benefit of the doubt and watch the movie again, this time on Blu-ray. After all, this is the man who gave us The Godfather Parts I & II, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now. But even after round two and having a slightly better grasp on the storyline (thanks to Coppola’s audio commentary and the plot description from Sony), Yout” still lost me amidst Coppola’s conceited symbolism, inept directing, stiff dialogue and acting from an otherwise competent cast as wooden as Noah’s Ark. On the plus side though, I appreciated the costumes and cinematography more.
Where did it all go wrong? It certainly wasn’t studio interference. Francis footing the bill for the production meant he only had to answer to one person: himself. Could it have been the hour that Coppola cut out of the final print? Perhapsâ€¦ look at what a half hour of restored footage did for 1989’s The Abyss; it took a muddled mess and made it work. Or was it that the novella by Mircea Eliade was one of those literary works that simply could not be adapted into a motion picture? Perchance, but the same was also said about The English Patient, The Color Purple and The Talented Mr. Ripley prior to their release, and look how those turned out.
Personally, I believe that the failure of Youth Without Youth can be attributed to a director with too much money and time on his hands, in possession of the wrong project to invest those two things into and no one around to tell him what was and was not working. In the official press notes for the film, it is stated that Youth is a sprawling examination of love, memory and lost time that brims with visuals and symbolism. I agree that it is sprawling all rightâ€¦a sprawling mess, so much so that I think that this film is easily Coppola’s worst work since his dire segment of 1989’s New York Stories.
That’s right, it’s worse than Jack.
Whatever animosity I have toward this film, I certainly can’t spread that hatred to the audio and video presentations delivered on Sony Pictures Home Entertainment’s Blu-ray Disc release. The 1080p/AVC-MPEG 4 encode beautifully captures Mihai Malaimare Jr’s widescreen compositions, which were shot using the Sony HDC-F950 HD Cameras. Picture detail is sharp, black levels strong and for the most part, colors are accurately handled. I say “for the most part” only because in one or two instances, flames from an explosion appear to be a little oversaturated. The 5.1 Dolby TrueHD track is also impressive, with crystal-clear center channel dialogue and the myriad of sound effects and music that pepper the film throughout nicely employing the surround channels.
I wasn’t very eager to jump into the supplemental materials that accompany the movie on Blu-ray. The idea of listening to and watching interviews with people justifying this film’s existence was simply horrifying. Surprisingly, I found this group of bonus bits to be rather interesting and, quite obviously, a far more involving affair than the movie itself.
Coppola kicks things off with a Feature-Length Audio Commentary. As he has been on previous commentary tracks, the filmmaker comes across as very personable and interesting to listen to as he provides tidbits on stuff that went on behind the scenes, what his intentions were with a particular scene or theme as well as a brief explanation on a particular scene that is playing out as he speaks. Did his commentary make me appreciate his efforts a little more? Ever so slightly. Did it make me like the movie more? Hell no.
Running at a very scant eight minutes, Behind the Scenes of Youth Without Youth is exactly what the title implies: a look at the making of the movie. It’s not a very long or in-depth one, but it does offer quick sound bites with Coppola, Roth, Ganz, Lara and Matt Damon, who has a cameo as an American reporter (his appearance here is longer than his appearance in the film). They chat about the book, working in Romania and, in regards to Coppola, financing the movie on his own. Had it been longer than eight minutes, this short might have had a little more impact. But at its current length, it comes off as strictly Electronic Press Kit filler. This short is presented in 480p video.
A bit longer-and more informative- are the other two featurettes found on the disc, both presented in decent 1080i video. Music for Youth Without Youth (27:00) is a chronicle of the scoring of the picture in and includes interviews with Coppola, composer Osvaldo Golijov, Editor Walter Murch as well as the score’s line producer. It’s a rather informal type of documentary, that shows the good (Coppola visiting the orchestra on the first day of scoring sessions, discussions on the importance of music in film) and bad (the line producer being pissed off at folks for not being ready on time) of the scoring process. This doc gets points for being both informal and somewhat honest.
The final doc is the 18-minute Youth Without Youth: The Makeup, which is an okay look at the makeup process applied to actor Tim Roth. Not quite as good as the short on the music of the film, but still worth a peek should you chose to accept the task of actually watching this disc.
Finally, there are four minutes of End Credits. Similar to what Coppola did with his 1979 Vietnam classic Apocalypse Now, there are no end credits on the theatrical and home video prints of Youth Without Youth. Now is your chance to find out who did what and write down their names so the next time you see their names attached to a movie, you can approach that film with a bit of trepidation.
For years, Francis Ford Coppola has talked about getting back to his roots and making films that are more personal, more eclectic. I was kind of hoping that when made that statement, he meant something along the lines of The Conversation. Unfortunately, I think he was referring to something like Youth Without Youth.
If you’re a fan of Coppola’s work, take my advice and do one of two things: Go rent The Godfather and pretend that you have watched this film instead. Or even better, go and buy a bottle or three of Coppola’s fine wines, hang out with some friends and drink the night away while coming up with your own observations about love, memory and lost time. I guarantee that whatever you come up with on those subjects will make more sense and be more entertaining than Coppola’s $10 million nightmare. While I commend Sony for assembling a nice Blu-ray edition, I can’t in good conscience recommend that you buy or rent it. Life is too short to waste your time on junk like this.
- Score: 4.5
— Shawn Fitzgerald