TetroReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 06/19/09 00:01:52
When Francis Ford Coppola reemerged from a decade-long hiatus from moviemaking in 2007 with “Youth Without Youth,” a self-financed and decidedly surreal meditation on such weighty subjects as life, love, language and the inevitable passing of time, it wasn’t that much of a surprise when audiences pretty much rejected it out of hand for being too weird and convoluted for their tastes. What did come as a surprise was the massive amount of venom that it received from critics who seemed to take his desire to make a small, personal and extra-arty film--the kind of thing that many established filmmakers often talk about doing in interviews but which few ever do--instead of taking on a simpler and more commercially viable project almost as a personal insult. Clearly, if Coppola wanted to make that kind of movie, he could easily do so and the chances are excellent that, as he demonstrated with the likes of “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” and “John Grisham’s The Rainmaker,” he could make them better than most other filmmakers working today could ever dream of doing. However, it is just as clear that Coppola has no interest in doing such things at this time--having finally reached the point where he can indulge in the brand of truly independent filmmaking, a position he has been trying to attain for nearly his entire career, there is no way that he would possibly abandon the dream in order to make some anonymous piece of studio junk--and as his latest self-financed effort, the audacious and frequently dazzling family melodrama “Tetro,” proves, it is doubtful that his position will change anytime soon.Written by Coppola (his first original solo screenplay since 1974’s “The Conversation”), the film opens with Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich), a 17-year-old prep school runaway who is working as a waiter on a cruise ship that has just docked in Buenos Ares, Argentina for repairs. With a few days to kill, Bennie decides to look up his older brother Tetro (Vincent Gallo), whom he hasn’t seen or heard from since he mysteriously left home more than a decade earlier. During that separation, Bennie has built up an idealized version of Tetro in his head as a successful artistic type--the only possible reason that he can imagine why Tetro never came back for him in all that time--but when he arrives at his brother’s doorstep for his long-awaited reunion, it doesn’t go quite as planned; Tetro is instead a crank hobbling around his apartment on a broken leg (the result of a recent encounter with a bus that didn’t go well) who hasn’t lived up to his alleged artistic potential (instead of supplying the plays for the local theater, he mans the spotlight) and no burning desire to see his brother and rehash any memories of their family history or the reasons why he left. A truce is negotiated by Tetro’s lovely and infinitely patient girlfriend, Miranda (Maribel Verdu), Bennie is allowed to stay and the two brothers try to reestablish their fraternal bonds, although tensions begin to flare in Tetro any time the subject of their shared past is brought up.
Through hazy memories, inadvertent revelations and sordid details found in a cache of autobiographical scribblings that Bennie discovers in a hidden trunk, it eventually becomes apparent as to why Tetro is reticent to discuss their family. Through a series of painful flashbacks, we discover that their father (Klaus Maria Brandauer) is a world-famous orchestra conductor who was evidently a monster whenever he was off the stage--he willfully destroyed the career of his older brother in order to further his own (“There is room for only one genius in this family”) , seduced Tetro’s then-girlfriend out from under him for no other reason than to prove that he could and largely blamed him for the auto accident that killed his mother. Eventually, Bennie decides to utilize Tetro’s writings as the basis of his own play, a move that doesn’t exactly endear himself to his brother but which does capture the eye of the country’s most powerful arts critic, the enigmatically-named Alone (Carmen Maura), who invites the play to compete as a finalist in Argentina’s most revered arts festival. Bennie and the theatrical troupe go off to perform in the festival on a trip that signals his final journey into manhood--both literally, thanks to the offer from a sexy friend and her equally hot aunt to throw him “a pajama party without the pajamas, and metaphorically, thanks to the last-minute arrival of Tetro with a final revelation that forces Bennie to reevaluate his entire life and confront his family at last.
Telling stories about the familial ties that bind (and occasionally choke) and sibling relationships/rivalries is nothing new in the Coppola canon--he has dealt with such material in films as varied as the “Godfather” films, “Rumble Fish” (to which “Tetro” owes a considerable debt) and “The Cotton Club, to name just a few. What is different this time around is that while those films were either written or inspired by the works of others, “Tetro” is clearly a more personal exploration of these themes for Coppola, a man whose family is filled with several generations of artists and, I would venture to guess, a certain amount of artistic temperament between them. In interviews, Coppola has denied that the film is specifically autobiographical and while that may be true, the hurts and the conflicts that he depicts here are so raw and painful that it would be foolish to believe that they were invented completely out of whole cloth. Under normal circumstances, this is the kind of project that one might expect from a first-time writer or filmmaker (perhaps the film is meant to be an evocation of the play that Bennie eventually writes) and in most cases, the results are usually on the dire side because they have not yet fully developed the artistic muscles required to transform life into art and because they lack the ability to recognize when something that may have been important to them from a personal standpoint doesn’t work from a dramatic one. The screenplay is clearly the film’s weak point--the story starts off on the high end of the flamboyantly melodramatic scale and only pushes things further as it goes along and some of his narrative is so obliquely structured that it makes Tetro’s own scribblings (which can only be deciphered using mirrors) look straightforward by comparison. The story isn’t bad, by any means, but at its heart, there isn’t much of anything on display here that you wouldn’t find in a Fifties-era weeper. In essence, it is the kind of thing that someone writes when they are young and hungry and desperate to show their feelings to the world and which they often find themselves cringing over when they encounter it again when they are older and presumably wiser.
And yet, while Coppola’s screenplay may seem like the kind of thing written by a young man whose enthusiasm far outweighs his discipline, it has been directed by a veteran whose considerable powers have not ebbed at all and whose own enthusiasm at being able to tell a story in whatever way he sees fit, no matter how odd it may seem to some and regardless of its commercial prospects, grows more and more infectious as the story progresses. Yes, everything about “Tetro” is pitched at an operatic level right from the start but as it turns out, this is the correct pitch for the material he is dealing with here. He could have easily told this story in a more restrained manner with a normal visual style and low-key performances and who knows, he might have still gotten a good movie out of it. Instead, he frankly swings for the fences in regards to his artistic choices and pretty much knocks everything out of the park. Narratively, he takes this wildly flamboyant tale and presents it in such a way that everything seems almost ready to completely fly off the rails (which is exactly how both Tetro and Bennie perceive their lives to be) without ever quite losing control of the material, even when it veers into near-insanity in the last half-hour or so. The performances are equally stylized without going overboard as well--Gallo is the perfect embodiment of genius gone sour, newcomer Ehrenreich does a good job of representing the callow youth who gradually becomes a man (he is so good at this, in fact, that some have dismissed his performance as pretty-boy posturing), Verdu (who you will recall from “Y Tu Mama Tambien” and “Pan’s Labyrinth” is the ideal version of the warm and nurturing woman who will do anything to keep the peace and Brandauer is never less than mesmerizing in his self-absorbed monstrousness. Finally, from a visual standpoint, “Tetro” is one of the most stunning visual experiences to come along since “The New World”--the satiny and seductive black-and-white cinematography (with occasional bits of striking color) from Mihai Malaimare Jr., is so gorgeous to behold that anyone who still holds onto the mistaken belief that b&w photography is inferior to color should be forced to watch this film in order to realize for themselves just how wrong that particular assertion is.Funny, haunting, strange and striking in equal measure, “Tetro” is a triumph that reconfirms Francis Ford Coppola’s position as one of the great American filmmakers--I cannot think of another one working right now possessing both the audacity to come up with the idea of a film like this in the first place and the artistic skill to pull it off as well as he has done here. Of course, because it lacks the immediate appeal of his more commercial work, it is likely that many critics and audiences will dismiss it as harshly and unthinkingly as they did “Youth Without Youth.” However, it is clear from those two films that Coppola is no longer making films that are designed to hit it big at the box-office for a weekend or two before fading from the limelight and the memory--he is making the kind of ambitious artistic statements that are designed to stand the test of time. This type of filmmaking seems to have reinvigorated Coppola’s artistic spirit and while “Tetro” seems unlikely to replenish his coffers for a long time, the artistic dividends that is pays off to viewers brave enough to seek it out more than make up for the financial ones.
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