Youth Without Youth

Youth Without Youth on Blu-ray disc

What if you could do it all over again, but without going back to when you had actually done it?

This is the opportunity given to Dominic Matei (Tim Roth), in Francis Ford Coppola's hard to fathom but sumptuously gorgeous Youth Without Youth, his first film in a decade.

It's also a splendid example of the high definition Blu-ray medium, a film shot on HD video and transferred to the little disc with excellent fidelity.

At the film's opening in pre-World War II Romania, Matei is a man in his 70's, near the end of his life and depressed that he hasn't accomplished everything he wanted to and feeling sorry for himself over lost opportunities and lost love. But in an instant his life is changed: he's struck by lightning and during his subsequent recovery in hospital discovers that the shock has somehow rejuvenated him, made him young and vibrant again.

In short, he has been given youth, but with all his experience and memories intact: Youth Without Youth (Hey, there's a movie title in there somewhere!).

Not only that, but he also has some superhuman abilities now, such as the ability to understand what's in an entire book merely by passing his hand over it. These abilities bring him to the attention of the Nazis and cause him to become a fugitive on the run. He manages to stay ahead of the Third Reich while continuing his life's work (a study of language), while falling in love with a woman named Veronica (Alexandra Maria Lara) who, like him, has been changed by a lightning strike.

Thanks to the lightning, Lara's past lives start coming to the surface and she begins "speaking in tongues," in this case ancient languages such as Sanskrit. Good thing Dominic's a student of language, eh? Her journey through her past lives and their search for answers takes them from Europe to India and Malta and some quite intriguing situations.

If this sounds like a weird plot to you, you're right. Youth Without Youth is difficult to follow and quite cerebral, yet it draws you into it even if you're confused and want to holler out "Wait a minute!" and ask Coppola a few pointed questions about just what the heck's going on up there on the big screen.

Roth turns in a very good performance as the lightning-and-love struck protagonist in what was undoubtedly a very challenging role. But the real star is Coppola. Youth Without Youth is his film and his fingerprints are all over it. It's more like his One From The Heart than the larger than life Apocalypse Now. And it's full of Coppola touches, from innovative camera angles and transitions to interesting and different ways of telegraphing information to the audience than by just burning a title like "Romania, 1938" over the picture.

As mentioned, Youth Without Youth is an excellent example of the Blu-ray species. The film was apparently shot with a Sony HDC-F900 High Definition camera, and the digital source to digital destination path brings beautiful results. The 1080p picture quality (aspect ratio 2.35:1) is stunning, with incredible detail (close-ups look particularly delicious), solid blacks and beautifully crisp and clean colors. There's often the type of nearly 3D-like depth we love and, if you could keep your audience in its seat rather than having them scratch their heads and go "huh?" at the plot before running from your home theater, this would be an excellent disc to use for showcasing your equipment.

The audio is just as good. Sony has chosen to use a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack, and it's glorious right from the opening scene with its clocks kicking off the "time" theme with excellent use of the entire surround sound field. The musical score, sound effects and ambient sounds envelop you with warmth and detail. Even the subwoofer gets a nice chance to shine thanks to the lightning strikes.

Extras include a commentary by writer/producer/director Coppola, and it's as up close and personal as the film itself is. Unfortunately, he concentrates on the story (which is good in a way, because it can help you understand it) more than the actual work of filming (though there's some interesting stuff here, too) and we'd love to have learned more about his embracing of digital technology and how that affected his work.

There's also a short "Making of" featurette that's pretty superficial and doesn't really address the making of the film, a complex look at the creation of the musical score and a look at the special makeup effects.

Coppola also offers us the full closing credits, which were eliminated from the end of the film.

Sony has stuck its usual Blu-ray promotional blurb at the beginning of the disc, when it autoplays, which we haven't complained about before but which has always struck us as annoying - and silly, since practically the only people who'll see it are people who've already made the move to Blu-ray.

And just as DVD menus can be overblown and annoying, so here Sony hired someone to program the menu who was more interested in dazzling us with his or her ingenuity than with actually creating a straightforward menu such as we prefer. Here, your choices zip around the screen as you move the cursor.  A small complaint, but we get really tired of artsy fartsy menus that slow down our access to the movie and its features.

Youth Without Youth is an interesting return to filmmaking for this master craftsman, but it's best viewed as an example of the master at work on the set and in the studio and not at work with the word processor. The story is by far its weakest link, but the look is gorgeous and the Blu-ray is an outstanding example of the beast.

Youth Without Youth, from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
125 min. 1080p, 2.35:2, Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround
Starring Tim Roth, Alexandra Maria Lara, with Bruno Ganz
Written, produced and directed by Francis Ford Coppola

Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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