Francis Ford Coppola’s Tetro opens with a moth battering around a light bulb, an apt metaphor for the filmmaker’s quixotic return to independent filmmaking. At 70, Coppola has never been more entranced by the burning intensity of artistic inspiration and pure cinema, and like his latest characters, he still risks getting burned in the pursuit.
Coppola embarked on a new phase of his career with 2007’s Youth Without Youth, an esoteric indie starring Tim Roth. One could call it a back-to-basics move if there were anything basic about the movies. Like Youth Without Youth, the black-and-white melodrama Tetro is eccentric, esoteric, and a bit of a mess. In the early scenes of Coppola’s first original screenplay in over thirty years, he establishes intriguing character dynamics: teenage Bennie (talented find Alden Ehrenreich) arrives at a Buenos Aires apartment to reunite with his long-lost older brother (the ever-brooding Vincent Gallo).
The older brother, who insists on being called Tetro, is a frustrated writer with a hair-trigger temper and a patiently indulgent girlfriend named Miranda (Maribel Verdú of Pan’s Labyrinth). “I don’t want to see you get your feelings hurt,” she tells Bennie. But it’s too late for that. Bennie still carries the pain of having been abandoned years before by Tetro, who promised in a letter to come back and get him. Now Bennie finds himself investigating the brother he has always idolized, and both find themselves compelled to reexamine the legacy of their cruelly inconsiderate father, the great orchestra director Carlo Tetrocini (Klaus Maria Brandauer).
Though the Argentinean setting and black-and-white digital video lend the picture a lush look, Coppola’s complex pastiche of artistic influences crowds out the director’s own assured and singular style. When its feet are planted on the ground, Tetro taps the veins of Williams and O’Neill, two of Coppola’s theatrical inspirations. But as the story wears on, Coppola adds operatic and surrealist flourishes, taking the characters into “la dolce vita” of a chic Patagonian playwriting festival (presided over by Carmen Maura) and slipping into an otherworldly dance sequences (after Powell and Pressburger’s The Tales of Hoffman). In the late going, dance, opera, dreams and film merge, but by then Tetro is a far cry from where it began.
It’s no great stretch to read Tetro as a funhouse-mirror reflection of three generations of Coppolas, with each individual struggling against the others for artistic and familial ground. But as style hijacks story, the family drama becomes increasingly unconvincing: a climactic plot twist is one thing, but the picture’s final line of dialogue seems unintentionally absurd, a renunciation of what the previous two hours have taught us. There’s still much to admire in the visual craft and offbeat cultural sampling Coppola heroically brings to a homogenized cinema, but Tetro rides off the rails.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]