Tetro is the second film of what Francis Ford Coppola openly calls his “second career,” a paean to the dysfunctions, jealousies and other deeply-felt emotions brewing in a family full of egotistical artists. It, like 2007’s Youth Without Youth, stands as a far cry from the for-hire studio schlock he regularly churned out before his decade long hiatus. Similarly, the film owes less to the grand classical Hollywood traditions its maker subverted during his prime than the distinctly European tradition of incorporating surrealistic psychological touches into a mainstream character driven framework.
Shot smoothly on digital black-and-white, it makes full use of the imposing attached shadows and carefully calibrated lighting characteristic of the films that most effectively incorporate the still-potent format. The sharply colored interludes of painful flashbacks and interpretative dances lend it an edge that places the contemporarily unfolding dramatics within a larger, affecting context. It mines more emotional truths than Coppola’s deeply flawed prior effort, and it’s never weighed down by oppressive abstractions. Tetro feels in large part like a film Fellini might have made, a consideration of the entire scope of experiences that combine to create a person and shape his relationships.
The star of the film, a young actor named Alden Ehrenreich, might someday be considered another of the great Coppola discoveries. He plays Bennie Tetrocini, younger brother of the reclusive playwright Tetro (Vincent Gallo) who some years ago fled their overbearing maestro father Carlo (Klaus Maria Brandauer) and the rest of the family for Argentina. As the film opens, Bennie has left his job as a waiter on a cruise ship and absconded to the country to reunite with his elder sibling. The picture traces the reformation of their once tight bond, the deep familial-based insecurities festering in each man and the role their art plays in facilitating the uncomfortable surfacing of those issues.
Strip away the arty compositions, remove the rather highfalutin facade and Coppola’s picture stands entrenched in the grand cinematic tradition of the melodrama, complete with a swelling operatic soundtrack and abundant visual flourishes. The filmmaker uses every tool at his disposal to heighten the proceedings. Pockets of light illuminate an imposing portrait of Carlo, the enhanced sound of a buzzing light bulb that opens the picture foreshadows the torment to follow and parallel action regularly imbues the central events with potent symbolic heft. Coppola gives the film an old-fashioned cosmopolitan feel, setting most scenes along cobblestone streets or in the distinctly urban environments of small smoky cafes, modest apartments and cluttered backstage rooms at a theater.
Tetro works primarily as a mood piece, with every facet designed to place its audience squarely within the profound, unyielding turmoil engulfing the brothers. One should not be misled, however, into thinking the film’s some sort of hyper-expressive experimental picture, in which the stylistic machinations overshadow all else. It’s also not wrapped up in uninhibited Sturm und Drang, without showing any regard for more subtle touches.
The performances hit some very real, affecting notes. While Gallo plays Tetro as a closed-off enigma, prone to deeply-felt silences, the clean-cut Ehrenreich brings clear-eyed earnestness to Bennie’s quest to regain his brother’s affection. As their relationship slowly shifts, with each assuming the opposite role in a conventional older-younger brother dynamic once Bennie discovers he’s far more mature and put together than the idolized Tetro, the film engenders a real-world pathos that’s very specific to the common ambiguities in the relationship of siblings. Futher, as Miranda, Tetro’s much put upon wife, Maribel Verdú brings the picture a welcome dose of lively, infectious good cheer that stands in direct contrast to the misery spouting forth from the leads. Coppola develops a quasi-love triangle between them that enhances the movie’s oedipal overtones, with the specter of Bennie’s virginity looming over a scene in which he watches Miranda dance in a skimpy exercise outfit, and Miranda reacting angrily to his eventual defiling by two promiscuous women.
Given that the filmmaker famously comes from a family of artists there will be a temptation to look at Tetro as an autobiographical cry of pain, an expression of deep wounds left by oppressive parental expectations bestowed upon him in his own life. He has denied that in interviews, insisting repeatedly that his father was not a monstrous figure like Carlo, and he should be believed. However, his own story leaves quite an imprint on this second film of his second career, which might be looked at as a nightmare version of his own existence. In it, his renewed aesthetic and storytelling interests combine with a cohesiveness that Youth Without Youth lacked, spurred by a deep personal attachment to the film’s style, form and narrative. The best complement to be paid Tetro is that it feels like the work of a first time filmmaker, coming from a living legend reborn.