Based on a novel by philosopher Mircea Eliade, this is the story of Dominic Matei, a 70 year old professor who, while hailed as a genius, has left his “life’s work” unfinished. After being struck by lightning, Dominic is suddenly 40 years younger and has a second chance to complete his research.
It’s hard not to superimpose this story onto director Francis Ford Coppola‘s own life. Coppola himself turns 7o next year. And he is himself clearly a cinematic genius. And I get the feeling that, like Dominic, Coppola’s life’s work is not finished. After making four masterpieces in the 1970s (the first two Godfather movies, The Conversation, and — my favorite — Apocalypse Now), Coppola drifted off into less interesting work before disappearing entirely. (I am actually a fan of The Godfather: Part III and Coppola’s Dracula, but I wouldn’t argue that they are in the same league as his earlier films.) Now, after a decade of silence, Coppola is back with the ambition of a young man. Perhaps he will at last get back to completing his life’s work.
In the movie, Dominic describes his life’s work as the search for “the origin of language and consciousness”. For someone like Eliade, this is the search for the essence of what makes us human. In other words, Dominic is looking for the meaning of life. At first he seems to think it has something to do with knowledge — religious, philosophical, or perhaps even scientific. Then he meets Veronica, a woman who appears to be the reincarnation of an ancient Indian mystic. Veronica goes into trances where she regressess further and further into the history of language, thus helping Dominic complete his research.
But Veronica may or may not also be the reincarnation of a lover from Dominic’s youth. And as Dominic realizes that his obsession with completing his work is literally draining the youth from Veronica (while Dominic is not aging, Veronica begins to age very quickly), he leaves her, sacrificing his work in order to save the life of the woman he loves. Is it too simplistic to say that Dominic realizes that the meaning of life is found more in personal relationships than in scientific knowledge?
Hopefully Coppola doesn’t learn this lesson. (Or maybe that’s why he left filmmaking for 1o years to make wine.) This film is not yet a complete return to form for Coppola. It feels like a old fogey version of something like Donnie Darko or The Fountain. But it’s neither as intellectually stimulating as the former nor as visually compelling as the latter. In short Youth Without Youth is more interesting than Coppola’s 80s anf 90s work, but it has not returned Coppola to his 70s standard. I think he’s still got some of his life’s work to complete.