Mircea Eliade, mythologist and writer, wrote about myth, ritual, religious symbolism and seducing his Indian mentor’s 16-year old daughter (she wrote a way better book in response to his La Nuit Bengali), among other things. Francis Ford Coppola did not pick this steamy, bitter romance for his first film in ten years. He picked Youth Without Youth. Old man gets struck by lightning, turns into young man and manages to outrun bad guys who want to mess with his miraculous self. Then he meets woman who also gets struck by lightning. As man gets more and more involved with girl, he finds him inching closer to the greatest passion of his life – “proto-language”, which is the first language from which all languages were born. And you thought all men want is sex.
[This post has spoilers so cease and desist if you’re so inclined.]
Everyone who knew Coppola was making a film was predictably excited to see what he would come up with. The cast included Tim Roth and Bruno Ganz, with cameos by the likes of Matt Damon and Anamaria Marinca, the Romanian actress from 4 Months 3 Weeks 2 days who gave a stellar performance in the film. Some of us in India were a little extra excited because rumour had it that Vishal Bharadwaj, hot young(ish) Bollywood director, was part of Coppola’s second unit which was going to shoot a section in Mumbai. Bharadwaj has won acclaim for his Shakespeare-inspired films, Maqbool (Macbeth) and Omkara (Othello). He’s a medium-sized gun in our movie kingdom. Soon, the word on the street was that Bharadwaj was directing the India bit. According to the words in the credits for Youth Without Youth, however, Mr. Bharadwaj was nowhere in the picture.
This is not a bad thing, particularly since Coppola decided some bronze paint on Romanian actor Adrian Pintae could turn him into a Buddhist “pandit from Gorakhpur” (a Buddhist pandit? What’s next, a Hindu lama?). He did shoot the façade of the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai, however, though the interiors seem much more dodgy. The posh hotel’s patrons were apparently all going to audition for Mira Nair’s Kama Sutra, judging from the jewellery flashing on the women (gold dripping down their middle partings, framing their faces, blah blah). Oh wait, this is 1960s India. You know, that period when my grandmother was trekking the Himalayas wearing trousers and the Taj was highly anglicised.
But these are possibly the peevish reactions of an Indian watching the film. India makes for a miniscule part of the movie so why shouldn’t Romania double up for Uttaranchal, especially since the Alps have been replacing the HImalayas in Bollywood for decades? For all we know, perhaps a Romanian would find similar discrepancies in how Coppola’s depicted that country since much of the action is located there; then again, perhaps not. After all, the Romanian bits are shot in Romania.
Coppola seems to have been very careful about keeping the spirit of Mircea Eliade, a Romanian, alive in the movie. We can deduce this from the huge number of Mirceas that pop up in the end credits (perhaps Coppola was hoping for a reincarnation of the original writer to help him along) and from the fact that Coppola chose to have a Romanian as the expert coach for the bits in Sanskrit. Yes, there is a significant chunk of the film where the dialogues in Sanskrit. There are also bits in ancient Egyptian and Sumerian. If the Sanskrit accent is any yardstick of authenticity, then The Mummy may have a third instalment, starring Coppola and his language coaches.
Youth Without Youth has smatterings of Romanian, Italian, German and, as mentioned above, Sanskrit, Sumerian and ancient Egyptian. This is because Lightning Victim No. 1 (Tim Roth) spends the first half escaping evil people, mainly Nazis, in Europe while remaining youthful and being inexplicably considered hot by a random assortment of women. We are to believe the lightning has made him super intelligent, which is why he can beat Simon Templar from The Saint hollow when it comes to evading security and that too without make-up or props. He also does a great imitation of Uri Geller‘s metal bending tricks. In the second half of the film, Lightning Victim No. 2 (Alexandra Maria Lara), apparently the irrefutable proof of the transmigration of the soul, finds herself howling out ancient languages, thus moving closer and closer to the proto-language Roth’s character has been attempting to piece together, while aging rapidly. One would imagine in a tale like this the one thing that would exist are subtitles. If you click on subtitles, however, what you will get is Coppola’s commentary helpfully written out, with all its tangents and grammatical errors, thus ensuring you follow neither the film nor the commentary.
But switch on the commentary. It’s the most comprehensible and enjoyable part of this boring, exoticised mess of a movie.