Okay, well, I finally saw this and I hate to admit it but I was pretty disappointed, though certainly not with the skill that went into its making as in that respect Coppola came through without question. And perhaps I simply wanted to see something else ultimately and my familiarity with and affection for the book became a hindrance.
Which is surprising as Coppola follows the narrative and structure of Eliade's novella very closely (with only a couple of significant exceptions). But of course that belies the fact that such fidelity can be deceptive; it does not form a definitive prescription for success and often, as in this case, it's less relevant than that the overall aesthetic approach is misconceived.
At first I couldn't understand what was going wrong given Coppola's clear devotion to the source material and extraordinary cinematic rendering, and then I decided that it was exactly these things. It's not so much that he didn't get it per se as that he chose to present it in a way that denigrates the ideas, or at least trivializes them. I was surprised by my reaction to this as, at first, I assumed that his Romantic Expressionism was absolutely the right direction to take this in. I mean, why not turn these dense metaphysical ramblings into a breezy, though wistful, adventure? And it could simply be that it seemed too breezy, too wistful, for my tastes. That's why I say I don't lay the blame fully at Francis's door step.
Still, though the film does evidence a sense of comprehension and understanding on his part, especially toward the end where it counts the most, I just felt that applying the left over glaze from Bram Stoker's Dracula was a bad idea. If you want to take it into these sorts of realms where you tempt camp then go all the way and turn it into something that feeds off that vibe symbiotically, something that becomes self-rectifying, like Mike Hodges' Flash Gordon. Either that or give it to Kenneth Anger (or Ken Russell or even Raoul Ruiz...). There are also moments that feel distinctively like a smash up between The X-Files and The Keep, which isn't necessarily a good thing, with a little "Mortal Komabt!" style confrontation from the climax of Renny Harlin's Exorcist thrown in for good measure. But Coppola never fully commits to such an approach. He's too concerned with being respectable. And respectable gothic pulp with metaphysical overlays is a recipe for blatant incoherence. It's all just too much of an imbalanced mish mash and it makes Eliade's profound ideas often seem laughable or at least spurious, even to me. Yet this suggests more than just a desire for respectability but also a determination to avoid the implications of serious engagement, to hedge his bets in other words, and that doesn't sit well with me.
Conversely, the moments that Coppola alters resound with suggestiveness, too. For instance, he makes the Nazi threat much more prominent but also much more a caricature, like something out of an Indiana Jones movie. I'm sure this was intentional as it fits his attempt to cast Tim Roth as the Indiana Jones of the mind or whatever but it's another thing that set poorly with me as it creates an imbalance in mood and temperament. Also, and once again as per his agenda I suppose, Coppola makes Roth's abilities more pronounced and far more elaborate in effect. He basically turns him into a default superhero; I kept waiting for Roth to run into Sam Jackson from Unbreakable.
And then there's the issue of Alexandra Maria Lara's character, or characters. I'm not sure on this but I'm pretty positive that in the book Veronica was not inferred as the reincarnation of Dominic's former fiance. I get why Coppola did this as it romantically echoes an underlying aspect of Veronica's arc and it does show that he's got a grasp on what he's presenting us with but it comes off as yet another instance of excessive over-compensation in the form of baroque ornamentation. God knows I love excess but here it feels counter-productive as if Coppola thought he had to keep ratcheting up the stakes for fear of losing our attention. What he does lose is the thread of Dominic's implicit melancholy; Coppola's heavy emphasis on relentless spectacle and a farrago of overworked imagery turns Dominic's tragedy into an attenuated and vacuous sideshow. And if the metaphysics are to mean anything to us at all on a dramatic basis they have to function as performative; they have to be actualized in way that adds depth, not just gilt, to what we see.
The theme of forestalling mortality in order to complete a work which is, by its nature, uncompletable, has resonance and is communicated with genuine empathy so I'll give him that. Also, I like the fact that the work in question is an attempt to return to the source of language and human consciousness. There is great irony in the fact that to cite, objectively and empirically, such a still point, if found, would require a wholly altered objective comprehension to be understood. That's effective but owes its impact to Eliade not Coppola.
The main problem then is that Coppola's chosen stylistic approach obscures and dulls the magnificent, succinct eloquence of Eliade's foray into magic realism. And from the angle of pure form, while Coppola leaves us with a string of curious incidents which at best invite speculation, Eliade gives sustained weight and tragic depth to purposeful continuity.
One final positive note, though this too has little to do with Coppola: Alexandra Lara is so incredibly beautiful that I found myself resenting every shot that cut away. She compels the camera in a way I've rarely seen.