First the good news. Francis Coppola is back in the director’s chair, close to a decade after ‘The Rainmaker’, reportedly fired afresh with an independent spirit (which he’s willing to back with his own vineyard dollars) and brandishing a list of upcoming projects, of which this, an adaptation of a difficult 1975 novella by Romanian-born writer/philosopher Mircea Eliade, is the first to be realised. The bad news is that this first taste of the new cru Coppola is close to indigestible, full of undefinable mythic flavours, vague hints of dark ancient vintages and strange, fusty fruits.
Tim Roth – the main English-speaking actor in an international cast including Bruno Ganz and a large (mainly dubbed) Romanian contingent– takes centre stage throughout and does a creditable job suggesting the Faustian doubt presented to the elderly professor of languages, rejuvenated by a miraculous bolt of lightning in 1938 Bucharest. Should he use this second life to complete his magnum opus on the origins of human language? Or should he surrender to the momentary, earthly pleasures: love and eros? Given the beauty of the Romanian actress Alexandra Maria Lara (who plays both his lost love Laura and his new one, the sequentially re-incarnating and regressing Veronica) you can empathise with his dilemma. But Coppola is hunting other, bigger game here – Jungian transcendentalism, mind/body dualism, time and origins, destiny and dreams – of which little leaps off the screen. Even ace editor Walter Murch struggles to give coherence to the professor’s fractured, episodic journey through darkening wartime exile in Geneva, to the brighter revelations of ’50s India and the sun-kissed Mediterranean. The sticky, Euro-pudding atmospherics, too, are not lightened by Coppola’s restrictive instruction to cinematographer Mihai Malaimare to dispense with camera-movement, making the movie feel like an arbitary flick through a quayside tray of period postcards or, more unsettlingly, being drawn in to the vivified family photos glimpsed in Harry Potter movies.