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Coppola's 'Youth Without Youth' a near masterpiece

Youth Without Youth (R)

3 1/2 stars out of 4

After delivering two of the greatest American films ever made ("The Godfather" and its first sequel), Francis Ford Coppola slipped into a not-so-obvious, three-decade-long malaise. "Apocalypse Now" and the second "Godfather" sequel kept his legendary reputation afloat, but everything else he's made has been either too average or too personal to be embraced by the masses. As great as it is, "Youth Without Youth" will likely be largely ignored and unappreciated.

Showing a level of creative spark and narrative ingenuity he's never revealed before, Coppola's new film is a near masterpiece. Adapted by Coppola from the now out-of-print novella by Mircea Eliade, the movie is ambitious, covers an assortment of genres and openly invites cinematic catastrophe. Luckily, Coppola rarely lets the many balls he's juggling hit the ground.

It opens in pre-WWII Romania, where the 70-year-old Dominic (Tim Roth) is hit by lightning while crossing the street on Easter Sunday. While in recovery, he loses his teeth and starts aging backwards, and when fully recovered, he has the body of a 40-year-old and a new set of pearly whites. The attending physician (Bruno Ganz) is astonished, as are the eavesdropping Nazis, who are always on the lookout for assorted magic elixirs to help further the Aryan cause.

Not real keen on becoming anyone's guinea pig, Dominic persuades his doctor to provide him with fake identification in exchange for his innermost thoughts. With his clean slate, former linguistics professor Dominic moves on and discovers a whole new array of powers, both natural and otherwise.

What will prevent many audiences from truly enjoying the film is the artsy, "non-Coppola" manner of the narrative. In addition to being heavily metaphysical and metaphorical, it's nonlinear and relatively difficult to follow. Shot on a shoestring budget, it's still gorgeous and carries with it the familiar Coppola stamp of deep green and brown earthtones and phenomenal cinematography.

What might hook those on the fence - particularly women - is the parallel romance taking place between Dominic, the love he lost long ago and a new, modern-day prospect. Both women, as well as another ancient apparition, are all played by Alexandra Maria Lara ("Control"), an ethereal Romanian beauty who is called upon to deliver a wide range of acting styles and character personalities. Lara handles her demanding chores with amazing conviction and effortless believability.

Dominic - like Michael Corleone in the "Godfather" films - seems to be a thinly veiled substitute for Coppola himself. This is a filmmaker in the autumn of his years who is recognizing past glories while honestly acknowledging his missteps. Michael and Dominic are driven men who, deep down in their hearts, have the best intentions, but whose actions make them incapable of truly realizing their visions. Coppola does the best he can to help both of them along in their respective quests. (Sony Pictures Classics)

E-mail Michael Clark at clarkwriter@mindspring.com.