Coppola has given us a story that takes place in present day but feels like it was shot four decades ago.
Tetro is at once a beautiful film to watch, but a frustrating cinematic experience. Francis Ford Coppola, who has embarked on a self-described "second career," wrote and directed Tetro in a similar style to his 1983 film Rumble Fish. Both films are stark black and white with heavy shadows and chiaroscuro lighting reminiscent of On the Waterfront. This is appropriate as Coppola, with his last several films, has been attempting to be the kind of director he wanted to be 30 years ago before he got swept up in the Hollywood machine.
The film opens by following a young man we will soon learn is Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich) who is wearing what appears to be a Navy uniform wandering the streets of Buenos Aires. He is looking for the apartment of his older brother, Tetro (Vincent Gallo). Bennie is not, in fact, in the Navy; he works on a cruise liner. And Tetro is not his brother’s real name, rather it is a quasi-pseudonym he created for himself when he relocated to Buenos Aires to embark on a career as a writer. These false identities serve to set up the rest of the film which is both about family relationships (between father and son, mother and son, brother and brother) and the roles we play in our lives and in others’.
Tetro lives with his girlfriend, Miranda (Maribel Verdu), who immediately embraces Bennie even as Tetro effectively slams the door in his younger brother’s face. Tetro is a tormented writer-type though no one has ever seen anything he is written. Is he actually even a writer, then? Through the first half of the film, Bennie is like a puppy just dying for attention from his big brother. Tetro sees Bennie as a nuisance because he has worked hard to ignore his past and his family.
The film is absolutely remarkable in its style and cinematography. Coppola has given us a story that takes place in present day but feels like it was shot four decades ago. Near the end of the film we get a brief glimpse of an iMac laptop that almost feels anathema to the story until we remember it takes place in 2008 and not in the 60s. Tetro is Coppola’s first original script since The Conversation in 1974. This film shows that he has not lost his touch for storytelling as a screenwriter or as a director.
What is frustrating about the film, though, is the third act that almost feels tangential to the rest of the film. The brothers embark on a road trip to a theatre festival which almost brings the story to a screeching halt. Only the final revelation and denouement feel as though they fit while a good 20 minutes is spent on very little that has to do with the story.
Gallo is wonderful as Tetro. So wonderful, in fact, that you really do hate Tetro for being so self-obsessed and egomaniacal. That is the best indicator of a good performance: when the audience has genuine emotions about the character on the screen. Verdu, who stole every one of her scenes in Alfonso Cuaron’s Y Tu Mama Tambien, again brings her innate sexuality and strength to the screen as so few women are able to do.
The best performance, however, is Ehrenreich as Bennie. A newcomer to film, Ehrenreich looks like a young Orson Welles and has the acting chops to deserve the comparison. He is never unsure of his motivation or delivery and his scenes with Gallo (which have some of the best written dialogue in recent memory) should be shown as a master class in reacting with a partner. If we are lucky, we will see much more from this young actor as he surely has plenty more to give to the world of film. | Matthew F. Newlin