By J. Hoberman (Village Voice)
As Tetro, Francis Ford Coppola's baroque genealogical melodrama, reaches its appropriately hysterical denouement, Vincent Gallo fixes his pale gaze on young co-star Alden Ehrenreich and reassures him that "it's going to be OK—we're a family." Gallo's warmth is not altogether convincing, but for writer-director Coppola, Tetro is a cri de coeur, one more from the heart.
Step two in Coppola's reinvention as a self-financed, off-Hollywood, personal filmmaker, Tetro is a marked advance over the Faustian, time-travelling absurdity Youth Without Youth (2007). A moody job shot in carefully-framed wide-screen and sumptuous black-and-white chiaroscuro—with a few gaudy color flashbacks—it more than redeems the arty pretention of Coppola's 1984 youth film Rumble Fish, not to mention the dismal clunkers that followed (Cotton Club, Gardens of Stone, Tucker, Godfather III, Dracula, Jack, and The Rainmaker).
Bennie Tetrocini (Ehrenreich), an 18-year-old waiter on a luxury cruise ship, takes shore leave in Buenos Aires, looking for his long-lost older brother Angelo (Gallo), whom he has idealized as a successful writer. Now calling himself Tetro—short for the family name but also Italian for "gloomy"—the exile is holed up in the atmospheric port slum La Boca and is not exactly thrilled to see his baby brother. Gallo makes a fabulous entrance, leg in a cast, wielding his crutch to vent displeasure on the furniture. Willful destruction is the signifier of integrity. Attended by a devoted common-law wife (Maribel Verdú) whom he met in the mental hospital, Tetro is the touchiest of suffering artists. It's tempting to suspect that Gallo wrote his own dialogue and even perhaps Verdú's. "He's like a genius but without a lot of accomplishments," she explains to the avid kid brother.
Tetro is blatantly operatic, but its florid style is organic. Tetro's mother, we learn, was a diva. His father (like Coppola's, albeit to far greater success) is a composer; his uncle (again like Coppola's, if less successfully) is a conductor. Tetro's favorite movie, to which he takes the child Bennie, is Powell and Pressburger's flaming Tales of Hoffmann. These flashbacks allow for some ultra-theatrical inserts—Coppola shows us the dismemberment of Hoffman's dancing doll, Olympia—as does the narrative: Tetro is an unproduced playwright who scribbles cryptic notes to himself and hangs with the Buenos Aires underground and, at one point, operates the lights for (and disrupts) a drag version of Faust.
Meanwhile, snoopy Bennie insinuates himself into his cranky brother's life, enabling Gallo to throw a few choice tantrums, and begins rattling the skeletons in the family closet. Papa Carlo (Klaus Maria Brandauer) is an insanely competitive and manipulative monster who browbeats his younger brother, Alfie (also Brandauer), as well as his eldest son, with the notion that "there is only room for one genius in this family," and is last seen glowering over his own funeral in a Mussolini-scale personality poster. The acting out grows increasingly extravagant on the road to Patagonia, where a formidable drama critic known as Alone (and hilariously swanned by Carmen Maura) has arranged a drama festival to honor the Parricidés movement and perhaps the play that Tetro has secretly written.
Parricide or parody? "What has happened to our family? We were so promising," Tetro's uncle wonders. Coppola, who has scheduled Tetro to open on his father's birthday, has no doubts. Having directed the greatest family saga in Hollywood history, he can be excused for mythologizing his own clan—"Nothing in this movie ever really happened, but it's all true," he told interviewers at Cannes, where Tetro had its premiere—or for inspiring others to do so. There's more than a little baggage in the currently ubiquitous Louis Vuitton ad, a dramatically posed pastoral image of Francis and Sofia, shot by Annie Leibowitz during Tetro's production. Pointing a finger and a pen, the Olympian filmmaker lectures the dutiful daughter sprawled at his feet, one knee coyly raised, in an image suggesting a Renaissance rendering of Jove explaining dramaturgy to Thalia.
Tetro exhibits a similar, self-aggrandizing sort of nutty classicism. Old-fashioned, if not anachronistic, in its aspirations, this is an art film that might have been made in 1965—the period when the UCLA-educated Coppola first broke into production. The presiding deities are Orson Welles, Carol Reed, and early Fellini—the absurdist Roman Polanski of Cul de Sac would be an analogue—although, in interviews, Coppola has been eager to reference Pirandello, Tennessee Williams, and Greek tragedy.
The narrative is a bit labored, but, after decades of far more ponderous efforts, Coppola has found his way home. However overwrought, Tetro is neither a project nor a package; it exudes enthusiasm and love of cinema. Coming from the 70-year-old who once bestrode Hollywood Boulevard like a colossus, Coppola's new movie offers best possible evidence of youth without youth.
By Andrew Sarris (The New York Observer)
Francis Ford Coppola’s Tetro, from his own screenplay (partially in Spanish with English subtitles), conveys a sense of his own life and career convulsing wildly between fulfillment and tragedy, triumph and debacle. Now 70, Mr. Coppola can look back on an existence drenched with family feelings and vague guilt complexes. These he has expanded and wildly overdramatized in an independent low-budget feature shot on location in the most picturesque and art-drenched neighborhoods in Buenos Aires. He has filmed the present-day scenes in highly contrasted black-and-white, influenced by such B&W classicists as Akira Kurosawa, Michelangelo Antonioni, Elia Kazan and Robert Bresson. For scenes set in the past or as fantasies, he turned to the vivid color palette of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, represented by extensive footage from The Red Shoes (1948) and The Tales of Hoffman (1951). The narrative of two brothers in conflict is suggested by Rumble Fish (1983), which Mr. Coppola adapted from one of S. E. Hinton’s series of young adult novels, with Matt Dillon living in the shadow of older brother Mickey Rourke.
In Tetro, Vincent Gallo plays the title character, the older brother of 18-year-old Aiden Ehrenrich’s younger brother, Bennie. The film begins with Bennie as he arrives in Argentina from the U.S. on a cruise ship on which he worked as a waiter. We soon learn that Bennie is in search of his estranged older brother, who had left his family in the U.S. 11 years before, without a word of explanation. When Bennie finally locates Tetro’s house, he is welcomed very warmly by Tetro’s girlfriend, Miranda (Maribel Verdu), but Tetro himself at first refuses to leave his room to greet Bennie. When he finally does, he advises Bennie to return home as soon as possible. Tetro also refuses to answer Bennie’s plaintive queries as to why, in effect, he abandoned his younger brother. Tetro angrily refuses to discuss the subject. And so it goes, on and on, for an inordinate length of time—Bennie beseeching, Tetro turning away.
In the meantime, Miranda tries her best to bring the two brothers together, without any success. Finally, with Miranda’s help, Bennie gains access to Tetro’s hidden hoard of writings and secrets, and sets out to write his own musical play on what he has discovered. Bennie’s writing, in unwilling collaboration with Tetro, attracts the attention of a very influential critic named Alone (Carmen Maura), who awards Bennie and Tetro the Patagonian Festival Prize, at which ceremony all the family secrets come tumbling out. I would be a spoilsport indeed to reveal them.
Klaus Maria Brandauer’s Carlo appears only in the multicolored past as a disreputable parental figure for Tetro and Bennie. Tetro has already been compelled to relive a traumatic car accident, in which he, the driver, survived, and his and Bennie’s mother, sitting next to him, was killed. Mr. Brandauer’s Carlo is a world-renowned orchestra conductor, and bears a superficial resemblance to Mr. Coppola’s own father, Carmine Coppola, the first flute of Alfredo Toscanini’s NBC Orchestra, and a composer for several of Mr. Coppola’s film projects. In interviews, Mr. Coppola has insisted that his father has always been a supportive presence in his life, and that therefore there is no resemblance between his own benign father and Mr. Brandauer’s coldly, cruelly manipulative Carlo. Still, one may be left to wonder from what source Tetro’s and Mr. Coppola’s overpowering rage toward a father figure originated. Of course, Mr. Gallo’s Tetro delivers much of the actor’s own ever-sour expressions of disgust over a world of unexplained grievances. Mr. Gallo’s own films, Buffalo 66 (1998) and The Brown Bunny (2004), the latter having scandalized Cannes with its notorious fellatio sequence with Chloë Sevigny, project enough angst on their own to supplement Mr. Coppola’s.
Still, despite all its longueurs and extreme aggravations, Tetro deserves to be seen as the late work of one of the cinema’s most accomplished masters of mise-en-scène.
Is this the one—a long-awaited new classic from the master? Close enough. Tetro expands on the buoyant sensations of writer-director Francis Ford Coppola’s previous film—the origins-of-language love story Youth Without Youth (2007)—even as its twists and turns feel less spontaneous, more pro forma. This is a straight-hewn sins-of-the-father tale (a Coppola old reliable) that is at times dulled by its narrative inevitabilities. But though there’s less improvisatory wonder, it’s a small price to pay for the sight of a revivified artist expressing his lifelong obsessions with supreme control and confidence.
Coppola introduces Tetro (Gallo) gazing intently at an irradiant desk lamp, a sense-stirring bauble that attracts both his deer-in-the-headlights stare and an agitatedly buzzing moth. Sight and sound intermingle, as do past and present—whatever this self-exiled artist is remembering is more than vaguely unpleasant, yet complicated by memory’s haze. Tetro’s subconscious knot is fervently shared with his younger brother, Bennie (Ehrenreich), who has sought out his long-lost sibling while on furlough in Argentina.
Bennie, in his gleaming Querelle-esque sailor suit, is all easily corruptible innocence, but Tetro treats him with a coldness born of harsh experience. The brothers’ highly regarded yet exceedingly cruel composer father, Carlo (Klaus Maria Brandauer), nearly quashed his eldest son’s artistic aspirations. Because of this, Tetro’s rejection of Bennie comes off as a futile attempt to ward off conflict by preserving the younger man’s purity. Yet the blows and betrayals must come—this is a Coppola film, after all. The conduit is Tetro’s unfinished autobiographical novel, written in code and hidden away in a battered suitcase, which Bennie discovers and takes upon himself to complete.
Coppola excels at what might be termed the cinema of inadequacy. His great theme is the failure of a given era’s generational elite to live up to the examples of their forebears, however reprehensible the accomplishments. Carlo bedevils his son like Mr. Scratch does Daniel Webster, but he’s only part of a much larger problem. It’s the arts themselves that weigh on Tetro, from the aria that his mother (Adriana Mastràngelo) sings in the final moments of her life to the Powell-Pressburger film (The Tales of Hoffman) that he watches with Bennie in more stable times.
Gallo’s soft, breathy voice and hunched, heroin-chic frame belie the unpredictable intensity that simmers just out of sight. He’s the perfect performer to realize Coppola’s intentions. It’s frightening when this hollow-eyed thespian erupts, but he’s even more daunting in silence, when merely looking about, as he does here, with a potent mixture of awe and uncertainty.
His character’s journey is mostly one of retreat, of movement away from the blinding glare of the divine to the more private, darkened spaces of the self. It all comes back to light: Whether emanating from a common desk lamp or glimmering off the reflective Patagonia mountains, light is Tetro’s mock-mystical albatross. It teases and tortures him, promises revelation where none can be had—a fascinating reversal-cum-perversion of cinema’s tendency toward redemption and illumination. This often rugged struggle is mirrored in Mihai Malaimare’s simultaneously attractive and repellent hi-def cinematography, which shifts between a widescreen black-and-white present of deceptive luminosity and a window-boxed–color past heavy with murky grain.
Tetro is hyperengaged with this tactile world around him, but he slowly comes to realize that there is little satisfaction and even less comfort to be had in his artistic and familial experiences. This is an awareness that Coppola himself has attained, having had his fair share of peaks and valleys in both life and career. Some have called Tetro a return to form, but it’s more the work of a man who has gone over the proverbial edge and lived to tell about it. Much like Tetro and Bennie in the film’s final scene, Coppola has been swallowed whole by darkness and yet attained a necessary clarity that may otherwise have evaded him. It could be said, strangely enough, that the abyss was never so enlightening.