The film opens with our protagonist, Dominic Matei (Roth), now an elderly man overwhelmed by the disappointment of his life’s achievements. Never having completed his magnum opus - a study of the origin of language and human consciousness, he is haunted by great plans he once made and the great love he lost as a result. A cataclysmic event finds Dominic awakening on a hospital bed, his body restored to that of his 35-year old self and so too he discovers newly acquired intellectual abilities. A story of sorts develops. Along with the fascination of the medical community, word of his recovery reaches the upper echelons of Nazi Germany and events find Dominic escaping to neutral Switzerland.
This film is one primarily of ideas. The premise of a man restored to youth with the knowledge of the fruitlessness of time ill spent acts as a conduit for philosophising on the passage of time, reincarnation and the blurring of reality and dream. Any early attempt at developing mystery or suggestions we could be watching a war time thriller are cast aside, particularly in the films second half as Dominic begins a relationship with a woman (Alexandra Maria Lara) who through a similar experience to Dominic now acts as a channel to the languages of ancient civilisations.
There is always great potential in the value to be reaped from watching such a distinctive film. Movie fans relish the prospect of what pastiche of confusion David Lynch for instance can deliver to the screen. So too it is to be welcomed that a revered filmmaker such as Coppola chooses to deliver such a complex and demanding film, potentially introducing a wider audience to new viewing experiences. You cannot but sense a tireless effort and finesse being put to the construction and look of this film. Peculiar shots and stylised yet apt recreations of the decades the story spans show the work of a thoughtful filmmaker.
Unfortunately the overall effect is a numbing one. Roth’s Dominic is a sterile lead, wearing an expressionless face for the films run. He and the characters around him seem to have been plucked from the pages of an Agatha Christie novel, stunted and showing few dimensions or attributes that would endear them to the viewer. As with the characters the ideas are poorly expounded upon, the intellectual ramblings of Dominic, his inner self and those around him are uninspiring, convoluted and leave the audience disengaged rather than welcoming us to be a participant in the learning.
Intelligent films can layer their stories with examinations of any number of themes and ideas while still being cinematic entertainment. Recent examples that come to mind include ‘Adaptation’ and ‘I Heart Huckabees’ - these films tackle notions of identity, metaphysical examinations of what is truth and challenge literary and story telling conventions. Importantly, their expansion of such ideas is accessible and engaging. Certainly, Coppola should not be expected to compromise on the depth of the source material however it is essential for some cohesion to be in evidence. The film instead is episodic with no sense of progression or tangible resolution, so confusing is the presentation of its ideas.
Coppola first work in 10 years, following the peculiar choices of ’Jack’ and ’The Rainmaker’ is ultimately a dissatisfying one. The combination of unengaging characters and underdeveloped ideas leaves you feeling uninterested in reflecting upon the individual ideas or on the piece as a whole - surely the death knell to the success of such a film. Taking risks in how stories are told is to be lauded however with such an off putting delivery the film leaves a taste of wasted opportunity.