Despite being as much an obtuse commentary and intellectual game, as a story in the traditional sense, Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘Youth Without Youth’ manages to connect with the viewer on an emotional level, and is - although highly dependent on the individual viewer - potentially a satisfying experience.
Based on the novella by the obscure Romanian writer and theorist of religion Mircea Eliade, it is in one sense Ford Coppolla's "one to keep the professors busy", to paraphrase James Joyce’s description of his 'Finnegan's Wake', which is visually referenced during the film. This is one of few concessions to the audience, and generally Coppolla makes little effort to explain where the film is coming from.
Beginning in Romania in the 1930s, the film charts the life of Dominic Mateu (Roth), an elderly Romanian professor who is coming towards the end of a life spent trying to solve the mystery of the beginning of European culture. As he nears death, Dominic is struck by lightning, an event that results in him miraculously recovering his youth.
By way of explanation: Eliade’s work is in part concerned with the motif - present in, among others, Indian mythology - of the rebirth that results in an escape from normal human constraints.
‘Youth Without Youth’ plants a version of that myth in the hyper-realistic context of European culture. This recovery of youth is but the first episode in an extended new life of wish fulfilment that plays out through the length of the film.
Intellectually and physically, Dominic becomes the most interesting, sought after and attractive man in the world, and both his memories and his life as he perceives it play out as a series of intellectual and sexual successes.
He is wanted by the Germans - obsessed with creating the super-race - on account of his, being the "most valuable man in the universe", and they send a beautiful Nazi secret agent (Pirici) to seduce him even while he is in the care of the great Romanian physician Professor Stanciulescu (Ganz).
Dominic escapes Romania and travels the world, becoming a successful gentleman gambler in Bern before embarking on a relationship with Veronica (Lara), the woman who may hold the key to Dominic’s finally unlocking the proto-language, and moving to Malta.
They then travel to India, to further explore ‘Rupini’, the ancient Indian princess that is Veronica’s alter ego, and Dominic’s passport to the ancient world.
But is anything really as it appears to be? There are plentiful reasons to doubt - the entire film has a surreal quality - but also reasons to believe, and it resists a simple interpretation on the level of whether it is truth or fiction.
Does it work? Well, in one sense it does. ‘Youth Without Youth’ is one of those films that makes the world look slightly different after you have seen it. Ultimately, as a brave, interesting and highly unusual piece of cinema, it is well worth seeing if the themes are likely to appeal.