Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Youth Without Youth (2007)

Francis Ford Coppola turned out a finished film of his own for the first time in ten years with the release of Youth Without Youth. During the ten years that spanned the release of the film with The Rainmaker he had been caught up trying to work out how to do a massive film called Megalopolis (it ended up being abandoned) and doing rescue work on features in trouble. When Youth finally premièred it was met with confusion and skepticism and semi-quickly faded from view. Certainly most audiences had no idea what to make of the film and its magical realism.

Upon it's release I was curious, but I didn’t rush out to see it. It wasn’t until the film hit home video when my friend Lou called me immediately after seeing the film to say he was coming over with a copy of the film that I got excited. Lou and I have been talking about movies for the better part of 25 years. How important it is to see a film depends on the words used in describing the film to each other. The top of the list is the statement “Are you home? Yes? Good. I’m bringing you a copy of a film you have to see.” If we’re bringing the film to each other right after seeing it we know there is something to it.

When I finally cleared the decks and watched the film, I kind of had to agree that this was a special film. I was even more impressed with the film after listening to Coppola’s commentary on the film.

The plot of the film follows Tim Roth as an elderly gentleman living through the Nazi occupation of his country. His life in ruins and with all hope lost, he attempts to commit suicide, but fate steps in and he’s struck by lightning. The result is that he is taken to a hospital. There as the bandages are removed its discovered that he is no longer an old man, rather he is a man in his thirties. What happens next, and over the years that follow is the story.

I’m in love with this. Its not perfect but as flawed masterpieces go this is a pretty great film. It’s the sort of film that will haunt you.

The film is based upon a novella by Mircea Eliade. I'm told that the story is very much rooted in a "European" sensibility, what ever that is. The film does have a European feel that is very much in evidence, which is very much unlike any film from an American film maker that I've run across in the last 20 to 25 five years. Its a film that feels very much like it was forged in the studios of Europe. Watching it I kept having to remind myself that this was really made by an American, then again the film feels very much like the Godfather films, which in retrospect actually seem more European than American.

What really knocked for for a loop was that there are times when things aren't explained. Things are and we are left to work them out. For example there are times when its not really clear how much of the film is real. There are times when the film implies that what we are seeing is not real, but perhaps a misplaced memory or self image. Maybe Tim Roth isn’t as old as he/we thought (watch the way people react to him especially towards the end). What's the answer? Its not clear. While we may want answers the film and the filmmakers are assured enough to allow for the audience to make up its own mind. What I like is that the lack of absolute clarity allows for a discussion of the films themes. If, in the case I've mentioned, Tim Roth's appearence is not as we see it, then perhaps the film has one set of meaning, if it is literal then it has another set of possible meanings.

Its so nice to finally have an American director trusts his audience is going to be intelligent.

In watching the film a second time with the commentary that is on the DVD was enlightening. Coppola explains a great deal of why he did what he did. His goal was to get as much of the novel on to the screen, and in order to do that he couldn't invent things that wasn't there (say explanations). There were other times when things happen (the rose toward the end) when in order to be true to the book things had to happen that don't make "sense". What you can explain in a couple of paragraphs and have the audience believe will happen almost instantly on the screen and will have no explanation, which means you run the risk of losing the sudience. Coppola knew this and went ahead anyway. To me listening to Coppola talk about his choices, makes me like the film more since it becomes very clear that he made the best film possible. And as I said earlier its a sign that he trusted his audience to go with him.

I have a hard time really explaining this film sometimes. Its so easy to go off the rails and talk about the deeper meanings and visual tricks but at its heart this is very much a wonderful melodrama and character study. Basically this the story of an old man (or old feeling man) who suddenly finds that he is suddenly young and suddenly able to do all the things that time has denied him. Best of all he never ages. What would you do? It plays at times very much like a pulp novel, but that is almost a blind to keep us watching since as we are paying attention to the soap opera of our hero's life we are being asked to ponder other matters concerning life at large.

Its a masterpiece...

...though its at times flawed. It is at times too much of a melodrama, too soapy, too clear cut and some of the moments of "magic" are a bit too awkward to work on screen. However even though they scratch the surface of this work of art they don't wound it's marvelous heart.

I love this meaty little film.

Highly recommended, especially if you are willing to let the film do what its going to do. Let it be and you will be rewarded.

Currently out on DVD.

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