The Afghan boys’ kite-flying contests are the emotional core of the film, and Forster and his crew bring the camera into the sky and make it dip and soar along with the kites. It’s a thrilling spectacle, although it’s also tinged with a peculiarly emasculating aggression: The goal is to wrap your string around your opponent’s string and cut off his kite.
Half the time in the mystical saga Youth Without Youth, I had no idea what the movie was about, but I always felt that the director and screenwriter, Francis Ford Coppola, did, and that he was deeply in tune—and having a hell of a time—with the material. He’s not whipping up another hyperkinetic whirligig like The Cotton Club or Bram Stoker’s Dracula. This time, his stationary camera drinks in medieval Romanian boulevards and the unruly landscape of the Nepalese border, and he lets the face and body of his brilliant leading actor, Tim Roth, convey the movement of a mind in torment.
Roth plays Dominic Matei, a depressed 70-year-old linguistics professor who gets half-incinerated by lightning, but as his body regenerates, the years fall off, and he’s suddenly a smooth and vigorous (and libidinous!) 40. He’s also telekinetic and can absorb books by passing them in front of his forehead. A Mengele-like Nazi scientist wants to see the master race similarly electrified, so our hero goes on the lam—accompanied only by a doppelgänger (Roth), who’s not a figment of his imagination and who pushes him to continue his search for the protolanguage that marked a cosmic leap in human consciousness. By luck, he bumps into the extraordinarily pretty Alexandra Maria Lara, who is promptly struck by lightning and then babbles in Sanskrit, Babylonian, and ancient languages not heard for thousands of years. I could go on with the synopsis, but I’d hate to deprive you of the chance to be mystified on your own.
Coppola was reportedly laboring in vain on a script called Megalopolis when a childhood friend turned him onto the work of the late Mircea Eliade, an authority on the history of Eastern religion. Youth Without Youth marks his return to the screen after eight years, and whatever you think about such topics as metempsychosis and love that bridges millennia, it’s a joy to see him engaged again by something besides Cabernet Sauvignon. Nearing 70 himself, Coppola takes a subject that once would have made him gaga and explores it with tenderness and lucidity. This is a movie about memory that is always in the present tense.