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Youth Without Youth and Other Novellas
(Romanian Literature and Thought in Translation Series)
by Mircea Eliade
(In Harcover from Amazon)
"Youth Without Youth" (aka, "L'Homme Sans Age")
Francis Ford Coppola, for the first time in ten years, returns to the director's chair and takes us on a journey into an elaborate science fiction fantasy dealing with time, human destiny and world languages. This is going to play to teachers and students in the linguistics department on college campuses but it remains to be seen if word of it will reach anyone else. If not, an opportunity to witness a heavy work of the intellect will be lost, but it won't be for any failure of faithfulness in Mr. Coppola's adaptation from its origin, Romanian author Mircea Eliade's novella.
At a time when the Nazis are beginning to take control in Europe, Dominic Matei is a stooped, ailing professor of linguistics whose life search is for the origin of human language. He has had no presentiment of just how, at his advanced age, he's going to succeed at it as he does. Who, after all, could anticipate that you're going to be lit up by a lightning bolt and, afterward, find yourself younger and, by orders of magnitude, smarter. He not only has perfect recall, but can mentally "absorb" the content of a book by holding it (closed) for a minute or two as though inhaling it into his brain.
This process of rejuvenation may be a surprise to everyone but to no one as much as Matei's doctor, professor Stanciulescu (Bruno Ganz, a wee bit more than he needs to be) who witnesses it and accepts it as singular, but real. Since no one sees the virtues of keeping the phenomenon under wraps, word of what his patient has done (and can do) spreads. Officials of the Reich quickly understand his value and attempt to rein Matei's extraordinary abilities in to their cause. The tactic is to set him up with one of their female officers whose beauty is nothing less than irresistible. She will be known as "the woman in Room 6," (Alexandra Pirici) where magic of a sensual nature is performed.
When Matei discovers the ploy, he breaks it off with his alluring sex toy and escapes the Nazis to Switzerland. His unique gifts as a potential weapon, however, precedes him, and he's helped. He's offered U.S. protection by a Life Magazine reporter (Matt Damon), interceding for the U.S. government. Matei quickly rejects the offer, making Damon's role just an uncredited cameo. I said there's magic here, didn't I?
What's not been disclosed is that this two-hour movie has two parts. The second part, which begins with a chance meeting on a road in the alps between young Matei and beautiful Veronica (Alexandra Maria Lara), evolves into even more extremes of surreality and time travel. But it's all in the service of love and linguistics. Veronica keeps passing out, each time channelling a yet older existence and returning to the present with full fluency of the language of that time, begining with Sanskrit. Matei has discovered his fount of language history and is quick to record her every word. Which is more meaningful to him -- his deep love for the girl or the accomplishment of his life's work -- is for the viewer to decide since the movie isn't clear on the question.
The theme of an old person regaining one's youth and once more tasting the fruits of life, virility, creative freshness, smooth skin, etc. is and always will be a human fascination. But this story about it is so enigmatic, devoted to matters of the intellect and separated from sympathetic bonding that scenes intended to be highly emotional tend to be sensed rather than felt. The literary and the cinematic don't make a tight fit.
Roth ("Dark Water") is a curious choice for this central figure since so much of it is about a charismatic charmer. Or, let's say, the movie might have been polished to a greater sparkle with a more dynamic and romantically credible leading man. What Roth may lack in that regard, however, he makes up for in performance capability but, in the end, it doesn't elevate mainstream boxoffice appeal.
The women of the film, on the other hand, provide it with enough seductiveness to steam up the scenery and both assist in different ways to take the edges off outrageousness or camp. To some in the aparse audience, they may well make the movie worth the price of admission. Alexandra Pirici, about whom we know little except that she was in two European TV series before this is a standout in any medium. No less so is Romanian-born Alexandra Maria Lara who, possessed of exquisite sensuality, is more established with a long filmography from both continents. Her most recent feature film was this year's Belgium-made "Control."
While Coppola's last feature film as a director was John Grisham's "The Rainmaker," from 1997, he's been involved with some powerful titles as executive producer ("The Good Shepherd," his daughter's "Marie Antoinette" and "Kinsey" to name his last few. This position, or "credit" for those who may not realize, is a packager's tool to enhance the value and credibility of their product. It sure hasn't done Sophia Coppola any harm to have dad's name on the titles even though she very much does her own thing.
Production values are far less flawed than the story execution, deriving class and excellent from it highly pro technical crew. Tonal and textural richness is provided by Romanian cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. and a score from Argentinian sensation Osvaldo Golijov makes a mark with his lush colorations and stark beats. This is a composer with sounds all his own.
One may speculate on whether the idea of youth without youth is attractive or not. As a guide to answering that question, however, this film demonstrates that youth from an old man's perspective has its rewards but isn't a perfect picture of wish-fulfillment.
~~ Jules Brenner
(Under the French title, "L'Homme Sans Age")