After such hack-for-hire work as The Rainmaker and, most miserably, Jack, it's good to see Francis Ford Coppola stoking his creative fires once again. Youth Without Youth, his first film in a decade, is small in scale yet massive in ambition. It's about scholastic pursuits and obsession and lost love. It's about time travel, past haunts, and the Nazi menace. Most of all, it's about Coppola himself.
Based on the novella by Mircea Eliade, the film stars Tim Roth as Dominic Matei, a Romanian intellectual whose life has been spent, maybe even squandered, in an attempt to finish a hefty tome on the origins of language and human consciousness. In the 1930s, having already lost one love to the pursuit, an elderly Dominic readies himself for suicide, only to have a freak bolt of lightning jolt him back to his younger years. Perplexed doctors offer no explanation, and while Hitler's scientists circle like sharks, Dominic goes into hiding to finish his work. Some 40 years later, he discovers his lost love Veronica (Alexandra Maria Lara) cowering in a cave mumbling gibberish. Then things get truly weird.
Though it boasts sharp HD cinematography by Mihai Malaimare Jr. as well as a warm turn from the normally icy Roth, Youth Without Youth amounts to no more than a muddled curiosity. It's convoluted throughout, but by the latter reels, the film flirts with outright ridiculousness, as Coppola makes no real effort to answer the cascade of questions he's presented. There's a lot to admire here, and Coppola remains as visually gifted as ever, but the film remains oddly locked away from its audience. It's the director's most personal work in eons—in fact, it may be too personal.