It is tempting to see Francis Ford Coppola’s latest work — “Tetro,” a visually lush cinematic fugue about love, ambivalence and two brothers fleeing the dark shadow of their domineering father, a world-famous conductor — through the lens of autobiography. But like much of this movie, the lens appears clouded. Mr. Coppola’s father, Carmine, who died in 1991, was a rather less celebrated musician, best known for some of the scores for his youngest son’s films, including “The Godfather: Part II” and “Apocalypse Now.” Then again, the ravenous, larger-than-life patriarch in “Tetro” could also be a self-portrait of the director.
Certainly the intense passions between brothers is a theme that Mr. Coppola has visited before, in the first two “Godfather” movies, with their instances of symbolic and literal fratricide, and in the autobiographically inflected “Rumble Fish,” which he dedicated to his older brother, August. “Tetro” largely turns on the relationship between a 17-year-old, Bennie (the fine newcomer Alden Ehrenreich), and his much older brother, the anguished title character (Vincent Gallo, decoratively sullen), a cosmopolitan type who’s fled his homeland (fatherland) for an old-fashioned bohemian existence in Buenos Aires marked by late mornings, café idylls, colorful characters and erotic pleasures. These latter needs seem mainly provided by his live-in lover, Miranda (Maribel Verdú), a vague, warm presence who embodies the sensual and the maternal.
Bennie stumbles into Tetro’s world as if into a dream, one Mr. Coppola has summoned up with great visual beauty. The movie was shot in widescreen in lustrous black-and-white digital video with bursts of color by Mihai Malaimare Jr., the cinematographer for Mr. Coppola’s previous feature, “Youth Without Youth.” (“Rumble Fish” was also shot in black and white with splashes of color.) Mr. Coppola has cited Elia Kazan’s films like “On the Waterfront” as one inspiration for his new movie’s striking, high-contrast visuals, an influence that also reverberates in the brooding tensions between the brothers who at times bring to mind those in Kazan’s “East of Eden.” While shooting “The Godfather,” it seems worth mentioning, Mr. Coppola had nightmares that he was going to be replaced by Kazan.
The Oedipal angle in “Tetro” kicks in as soon as Bennie enters Tetro’s apartment, where an image of Robert Mitchum from “The Night of the Hunter” — the words love and hate tattooed on his hands — glowers down from a wall. The family theme echoes even here; in that eccentric 1955 classic, Mitchum plays a preacher who tracks the two children of a woman he’s married and murdered. The patriarchal damage in Mr. Coppola’s movie is somewhat subtler, the work of a man, Carlo Tetrocini (Klaus Maria Brandauer), who has crippled the dreams of his own brother, another composer (Mr. Brandauer, heavily disguised), and the sanity of his older son. Tetro may have renounced his father, but he can’t shake him in spirit or name.
And so, much like Mr. Coppola’s own filmmaking past, the old man looms. Hollywood haunts “Tetro” just as Carlo haunts his sons. Eschewing the inexorable forward thrust of most contemporary studio products, Mr. Coppola, working from his own screenplay — his first original one since “The Conversation” in 1974 — drifts and circles around his themes much as Bennie and Tetro amble around town. Tetro, we discover, is a genius or would be if he ever completed his work, an aside that’s funny and tragic though it’s unclear if it’s meant to be both. One of the many themes that surfaces, elliptically if stubbornly, is the pressure family exerts on genius or maybe vice versa, a topic that’s imprinted on the Coppola Family Saga.
A story of sorts emerges, though mostly what rises to the fore are moods and feelings and the heavy silences that drive wedges among even the closest of intimates. The sense of heaviness is partly due to the dark imagery as well as the intentionally artificial, somewhat leaden sound work by Walter Murch, Mr. Coppola’s longtime editor and sound guru. Resolutely nonrealistic — or, rather, nongeneric Hollywood — the audio adds greatly to the movie’s unreality, to the sense that we’re watching (experiencing) someone else’s dream or nightmare. Every word of dialogue and chair scrape sounds as if it had been separately recorded and the usual atmospheric noise — the ambient filler that gives movies their spark of artificial life — has gone provocatively missing.
Life meets art meets family meets film in “Tetro,” sometimes powerfully, sometimes obscurely. Filled with incidents (a well-timed broken leg, a production of “Faust”) and diversions (a powerful critic named Alone played with an inscrutable smile by Carmen Maura) and a few glorious peeks at the soaring Patagonian mountains, the movie finds Mr. Coppola stretching beyond the mainstream conventions that have alternately liberated and constrained him for more than four decades of filmmaking. As with “Youth Without Youth,” this new movie feels like a transitional work but also an inspired one, the creation of a director who, having recently turned 70, has set off on a new adventure that requires more from his audiences than some might be willing to give. Which is itself a sign of vigorous artistic renewal.
Opens on Thursday in Manhattan.
Written, produced and directed by Francis Ford Coppola; director of photography, Mihai Malaimare Jr.; edited by Walter Murch; music by Osvaldo Golijov; production designer, Sebastián Orgambide. At the Landmark’s Sunshine Cinema, 139-143 East Houston Street, East Village. Running time: 2 hours 7 minutes. This film is not rated.
WITH: Vincent Gallo (Tetro), Alden Ehrenreich (Bennie), Maribel Verdú (Miranda), Klaus Maria Brandauer (Carlo Tetrocini), Carmen Maura (Alone), Rodrigo de la Serna (José), Leticia Brédice (Josefina) and Mike Amigorena (Aberlardo).