Imagine Christopher Nolan or Baz Luhrmann or Roland Emmerich or any other director unwilling to retreat from the staid comfort of big-budget blockbuster filmmaking, and imagine they break their mold for a moment and make a tiny, heartfelt, indie-feel flick with no explosions or battles or tidal waves. Good. Now imagine they do that a second time, and a third, and imagine they do it so many more times that that becomes their new thing, and a return to blockbusters would seem odd. Basically, that’s what Francis Ford Coppola did.
This is by no means a bad thing! Interesting, though, that the guy behind The Godfather and Apocalypse Now would eventually be making movies so subtle that you missed their release entirely. Youth Without Youth is one of those, or at least it was for me, despite an interesting premise and noticeable names beside the Starring and Directed By credits. The film came and went without much hubbub.
Tim Roth plays Dominic, an aging Romanian linguist who has spent his entire life pursuing the origin of all language and “the origin of human consciousness”, denoted at one point in the film as the all-enviable “inarticulate moment”. Despairing at the inevitable failure of his quest, Dominic means to commit suicide when he is suddenly struck by lightning. As his wounds heal Dominic finds that he has grown inexplicably younger, and as World War II dawns it seems Dominic has an opportunity to relive his life and complete his goal.
Sounds ambitious, no? But didn’t we just get through establishing this as a small, blip-like effort from an otherwise giant of Hollywood? Is it big or is it small? We must decide quickly.
We really mustn’t though, or we can’t, or couldn’t if we wanted to. Youth Without Youth is a highly strange movie, not one that entirely makes sense, not one that’s even entirely likable on first pass. It is, however, uniquely both a grand-scale global epic and an intimate and thought-provoking character study. On the one hand Youth Without Youth spans a century and captures much of the fear and frustration holding Europe hostage before and during and after the war; it’s been reported that Coppola filmed over 170 hours of footage for the film, ultimately distilled into a mere 2. For those absent mathematical inclinations, that’s 168 hours of film gone straight to the landfill. That’s massive.
On the other hand, the entire film really is just one guy. There are other characters, yes, but Tim Roth carries Youth Without Youth on his back. I wasn’t paying attention to whether he appeared in every single frame of the film, by my recollection is that he very nearly did. Regardless, through the frequent use of mirrors and actual walking talking doppelgängers, there are plenty of frames in which Tim Roth appears twice or three times. The film should more than satisfy any obsessive Tim Roth stalkers, at least until Coppola gets around to Youth Without Youth 2: The Other 168 Hours.
Thankfully Roth really is a great actor, and not one who gets as many starring roles as he should. Enigmatic doesn’t begin to describe his Dominic, and in the end he’s the only thing that makes Youth Without Youth work. You could easily write this film off as pretentious crap, but that kind of thing doesn’t really concern me. It’s interesting enough to watch Coppola craft something in this way on a decidedly smaller stage than anything he made in his Godfather heyday, and ruminations on “what it all meant” are like a bonus round. If a glimpse into a what a truly honest filmmaker looks like is what makes you sit down to Youth Without Youth, then I’d say that’s good enough for now. At least until Youth Without 2th.