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With: Vincent Gallo, Maribel Verdú, Alden Ehrenreich, Klaus Maria Brandauer, Carmen Maura, Rodrigo De la Serna, Leticia Brédice, Mike Amigorena, Sofía Castiglione, Francesca De Sapio, Adriana Mastrángelo, Silvia Pérez, Erica Rivas
Written by: Francis Ford Coppola
Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 127
Date: 05/14/2009

Tetro (2009)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Family Clot

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Francis Ford Coppola doesn't need a journalist or a critic to remind him that Tetro is his first original, produced screenplay in 35 years, since The Conversation (1974). He's an artist highly aware of his own career and legacy. For decades, he has been seen as a filmmaker in decline, unable to live up to his early promise, but also one that still generates high expectations with each new project. He recently spent ten long years between projects, from the intelligent, entertaining, but unremarkable The Rainmaker (1997) to the gorgeous, imaginative, but ultimately chilly Youth Without Youth (2007). That wasn't much of a "comeback," and so a lot seems to be riding on Tetro, which means that it will automatically disappoint most viewers. But not unlike the drastically misunderstood The Godfather Part III, the new Tetro -- however slightly flawed -- is beautifully mounted and emotionally engaging, two factors that Coppola rarely gets together in one movie.

As it begins we see the severe, tormented face of Tetro (Vincent Gallo) illuminated by a harsh light bulb (complete with a moth flitting around the glass). From there, the focus turns to Tetro's younger brother Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich), a worker on a cruise ship that has docked in Argentina. While there, he has decided to visit his adored older sibling. From Bennie's point of view, Tetro went off on a writing sabbatical and promised to return to rescue Bennie from their domineering father, a famous composer (Klaus Maria Brandauer), but never did. Bennie arrives and meets Tetro's warm, beautiful girlfriend, Miranda (Maribel Verdú, from Y tu mamá también and Pan's Labyrinth), but Tetro hides in a dark bedroom. The next morning, Tetro emerges, hobbling on an injured leg. He's grumpy and withdrawn and refuses to acknowledge Bennie as his brother; he introduces him as a "friend." Bennie stays for a few days, gets to know Miranda and begins to dig deeper into his brother's life, even finding the secret, scribbled note pages (readable only with a mirror) that make up Tetro's unfinished masterpiece.

Shot in beautiful black-and-white widescreen, Tetro is mostly realistic but with operatic flourishes. One point of reference is Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's Tales of Hoffmann (1951), a film that Tetro once showed to Bennie; Coppola splices in clips from the original (in color), and then later borrows that style to show heightened, color ballet and opera flashbacks in Tetro's story. Finally, there's the film's final quarter, which suddenly and drastically changes tone into a phantasmagoric feel, much like Fellini's 8 ½. In it, Bennie re-writes Tetro's pages into a play, which is then entered into a festival in Patagonia. The characters travel in cars past glittering mountains, drink, have sex, get dressed up for the festivities and have final, powerful confrontations (including the revealing of a long-kept secret). All realism is gone; every shot of this final half-hour is more intense, more operatic, like blaring notes of music rather than a written screenplay. It's a shocking effect, and I think it works better in concept than in execution. Watching the film, the tone shift feels more like a betrayal. We have spent 90 minutes becoming intimately involved with these characters on a ground level, and now we're watching them from the heavens. (The intimacy is gone.) Coppola ended all three of his Godfather films, as well as Apocalypse Now, with similar operatic sequences as various pinpointed executions set right all the unbalance in the stories, but the shift was smooth and fitting and never jarring.

Yet I like Tetro a great deal, which is more than I can say for Youth Without Youth, which I admired without really liking. I'd watch it again, and I think there will be more to see on a second viewing. I like that both Tetro and Bennie are connected by physical wounds and injuries -- perhaps mirroring their inner damage -- though Bennie's occurs only after Tetro is fully healed, as if it's yet one more thing that the elder has taught to the younger. (They even share the same hospital room, as Tetro points out.) I like the scrappy, sordid, half-assed production of Faust put on at the café, in which a naked girl trumps all other forms of art, and in which Tetro works as light operator, watching and judging from above. That Faust show works as a mirror against Tetro and Bennie's "original" play, which is viewed as high art and which -- judging from the small scenes we get to see -- seems just as sordid. I have to smile at the feared critic called "Alone" (Carmen Maura), who was once a mentor to Tetro but eventually betrayed him. A friend who attended the screening with me insisted that she was supposed to represent Pauline Kael, who initially supported Coppola, but then began panning him. Indeed, there's much here that can be linked to Coppola's personal life, but I'm less interested in that than I am in the general feeling of the film, which is a strong and good one. (I'd rank it among Coppola's top half-dozen achievements.) Doubtlessly this black-and-white film will fail to make much of a noise at the box office, but for those who are interested in real films by real filmmakers, Tetro is an exciting success.

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