Directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Starring Vincent Gallo, Alden Ehrenreich, Maribel Verdú, Carmen Maura, Klaus Maria Brandauer. (2009, NR, 127 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Aug. 21, 2009
Coppola’s rejuvenated sense of career is a welcome addition to the world of filmmaking, even if the two films he’s made in the new millennium (2007’s Youth Without Youth and now this) are not up to his own self-set high standards. These two self-financed films appear more experimental and personal than his extensive body of studio-produced work, though judging by the narrative flabbiness of both films, it might be possible to conclude that the Sturm and Drang of answering to one’s backers is not necessarily a bad thing for the overall artistic process. Tetro is by no means as tragically ambitious as Youth Without Youth, thus it makes much less of a mess when it collapses under its own weight as Youth Without Youth does. In fact, what hampers Tetro is not its surfeit of ideas and narrative impenetrability but, rather, its insufficiency of thematic hooks and dramatic content. Tetro is designed like an opera but plays like a power ballad. Gloriously filmed in high-contrast black and white (by Mihai Malaimare Jr., the same cinematographer who filmed Youth Without Youth), Tetro is a pleasure to look at with its shadowy frames, tilted angles, and flashes of color in the flashback sequences. The story, based on the first original screenplay Coppola has written since 1974’s The Conversation, is one of brotherly conflict and the lingering scars of family life, topics that has echo such films as Rumble Fish and The Godfather. Tetro (Gallo) and Bennie (Ehrenreich) are brothers by different mothers, both having been sired by the world-acclaimed conductor and egomaniac Carlo Tetrocini (Brandauer). Tetro, the much older one, has taken up residency in Buenos Aires where he lives the life of a tortured bohemian with his nurturing girlfriend Miranda (Verdú). This is where Bennie finds him when the ocean liner on which he works docks there for repairs. The half-brothers bob and weave around their emotions; Bennie needs the contact while Tetro has scars that are now opened afresh. Bennie eventually discovers an unfinished play of Tetro’s that is written in code, writes an ending for it, and finally brings something of Tetro’s to completion. Gallo postures and creates surface diversions but his acting is unable to plumb the character’s emotional depth, while newcomer Ehrenreich makes a strong impression. Maura plays an influential critic named Alone, but is too much of a cypher to register in the plot. The resonances of Coppola family life seem everywhere in this story, and not too much knowledge of the generational figures is required to read into the story a sense of Coppola’s personal relationship to it. Still, there is not enough dramatic tension to sustain the film for two hours and conjectures about the Coppola family saga are really extraneous to the experience of Tetro.