Coppola’s Latest

By Joe Kempkes
Friday December 21, 2007

After the Godfather trilogy and Apocalypse Now writer, director, producer Francis Ford Cappola was interested in making his magnum opus. At age 66 he hadn’t made a film in eight years and he said he felt “at the end of the road.” He wasn’t able to finish his dream project Megalopolis and was beginning to feel increasingly frustrated. 

He began exploring philosophical concepts relating to time and consciousness to find a fresh direction. He decided to contact a friend he knew in high school, Wendy Doniger, who currently teaches comparative mythology and Hinduism at the University of Chicago. Doniger suggested he read Mircea Eliade’s novella Youth Without Youth. After reading it, Coppola said subsequently, “I knew I’d found my subject.” 

Coppola’s new film adaptation of Youth Without Youth is, in some ways, a comment on his own life. At the beginning of the story the protagonist Dominic Matei (Tim Roth) is a 70-year-old man who feels his life is over. On the brink of suicide he’s struck by lightning and undergoes a dramatic metamorphose. All his teeth fall out and he grows new ones. His aging reverses and before long he looks like a 30-year-old man. He meets a woman who claims to be a seventh century Hindu saint and goes on a spiritual quest with her to a cave in India. 

The film is set in Nazi-influenced Romania in 1938 and Matei’s doctor Professor Stanciulescu (Bruno Ganz) begins to publish papers on Matei’s astonishing transformation. The Nazis take an interest in him so he has to flee. But before he flees he assumes a false identity at the request of his “double.” 

Matei’s life-long project has been researching the origins of language and the invention of a new language. His intellectual powers increase until he can “read” entire books merely by passing them in front his eyes without opening them. 

Coppola said this about the making of the film: Youth Without Youth was, in a way, like “The Twilight Zone”—an old man becomes young again. He seizes that extra time to continue his research on the origins of language. I wanted to return to personal filmmaking and Eliade’s perspective on regeneration resonated with the place that I was at in my life.” 

Perhaps only Coppola, among today’s top world filmmakers, could have pulled off this outre approach to philosophical questions with such candor and gravitas. And it was due primarily to his advancing age and to his artistic frustrations that the film even got made at all. 

Coppola’s career began with a coming of age film about a young man beginning to make his way in the world: You’re a Big Boy Now (1966). This latest film, if not his last, is indeed a return to personal filmmaking.