Film Review – Tetro
“Nothing in it happened, but it’s all true” – Francis Ford Coppola
Tetro is arguably the best film of 2009 that no one saw. Brimming with passion, the emotions of the characters run strong, the pain runs deep, and the artistry is felt within every frame of the movie. It unfolds slowly, allowing the tension to build almost unexpectedly to an unseen climax, it is like a slow burning match held in one’s fingertips a moment too long. The film is about family, rivalry, and buried secrets, but above all, it is about a filmmaker returning to form, coming back from decades in the cinematic abyss.
Francis Ford Coppola is a filmmaker with two completely different sections of a career. Throughout the seventies, he held a status that was near unrivaled, either directing or producing films that were landmark achievements. In order, he directed The Godfather (1972), The Conversation (1973), The Godfather: Part II (1974), and Apocalypse Now (1979). He helped produce George Lucas’ THX 1138 (1971) and American Graffiti (1973). He wrote the screenplay to Patton (1970). Any one of these films could have a been the singular highlight of another filmmaker’s career, Coppola either helped or was directly responsible for making all of them in the span of ten years.
The second half of Coppola’s career is made up of films that simply did not compare to his early successes. Having a truly independent mindset, Coppola’s later work had smaller budgets and actors. The grandiose and operatic feel of The Godfather and Apocalypse Now disappeared, and as a result his films were box-office bombs. This lead to Coppola making a number of mediocre films purely for financial reasons: such as The Godfather: Part III (1990), Dracula (1992), and the terrible Jack (1996). Youth Without Youth (2007) was arguably his most experimental film, and it was thought that perhaps he would never be able to go back to the greatness of before. But thankfully, he would make his return with Tetro.
It is a film that could have been made from another time. The look, style, and feel of it reminds me of films such as The Last Picture Show (1971), or Fellini’s great La Dolce Vita (1960). But most importantly, the film may very well be Coppola’s most personal. The story of brothers Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich) and Tetro (Vincent Gallo), their artistic rivalry, and the pressures of being the sons of a genius musical conductor (Klaus Maria Brandauer) may have its roots from Coppola’s own family. He comes from a family made up of talented artists himself: his father was also a musical conductor, his sister is actress Talia Shire, his nephew Oscar-winning actor Nicholas Cage, and his daughter is the filmmaker Sophia Coppola. These parallels fuel the film with an energy that usually come from newly established directors, where telling the most revealing of stories breed the very best out of them.
Gallo plays Tetro as a man trying to escape his past. Once known as Angelo, Tetro lived his entire life under the pressure of having a genius father, and never being able to be good enough of a man in his eyes. After a horrific traffic accident, which shatters the entire family, and revealed secrets that I will not give away, Angelo escapes the family to Buenos Aires, changes his name, and begins a new life writing a play that he never intended to finish. That is, until his long lost half brother Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich) arrives at his doorstep, arriving via a cruise liner he works on. Bennie, who is also an aspiring writer, finds the play and is determined to finish it, for it is also about him as well. Tetro treats Bennie with two faces, one with hostility and detachment, yet also with a hidden kindness that one would not expect. At first glance, we think that these bi-polar personalities that Tetro exudes come from someone losing their mind, but only at the climax of the film, where all the secrets of the family is exposed at the theater festival featuring their play, do we understand the torment of Tetro, and why he no longer wants to associate himself with his family.
This is one of the best looking films I’ve seen in years. In stark black and white, Coppola, with his cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr., fills the screen with visuals that are simply beautiful, and which engage us through the entire story. The camera is often times planted in one spot and very rarely is panned or tilted, allowing every object seen to play a part in the composition of the frame. Every so often, Coppola adds dashes of color in to the movie, particularly in the flashbacks and operatic dream sequences. These splashes of color add vibrancy to the scenes that make them stick in our mind. From small street cafes, to snow topped mountains, to enclosed rooms, theaters, and the flashiness of the festival, every single frame of the movie is amazing to look at.