Saturday, January 23, 2010

Tetro Film Review | Brothers Grim

by Thomas Delapa

What to make of Francis Ford Coppola’s confounding and highly theatrical Tetro? Running the gamut from baffling to beautiful, it’s a black-and-white mélange that begins with the story of two estranged brothers and ends crammed with so many cinematic homages, I thought I had died and faded into film-school heaven.

Shot down Argentine way, Tetro likely won’t earn high grades from commercial audiences, especially those still waiting for Coppola to return to his heyday when he was the godfather of 1970s New Hollywood. Aging into his second career as California vintner, Coppola at 70 seems satisfied to serve no wine before its time--not so unlike Orson Welles in the fallow years past his prime.

Again tapping the theme of blood brothers and twisted family ties, Coppola takes us to an Italian neighborhood in Buenos Aries, home to Tetro (Vincent Gallo), an embittered ex-writer living with his Argentine girlfriend, Miranda (Maribel Verdu). Resolved to reinvent himself, Tetro has “divorced” from his family--and that includes his young brother Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich), a cruise-ship waiter who lands one day at his door, naively hoping for a happy reunion.

At the dark heart of the film are secrets and lies, made even more dire by cinematographer’s Mihai Malaimare’s obsidian night scenes that make forties film noir look like a Disney flick. As in Coppola’s Rumble Fish, saturated color flashbacks spike the narrative with reminders of Tetro’s once-promising youth.

One from the Freudian couch, Coppola’s tangled plot winds its way back to Tetro’s famed conductor father (Klaus Maria Brandauer), a suave tyrant who has no room in his life for his son’s artistic ambitions. Throw in the death of Tetro’s mother in car crash, and you have the makings of an Oedipal wreck.

Viewers familiar with Coppola’s own life will know his own father (Carmine) was a musician and conductor, but auteur autobiography only takes you so far in this jangly, self-financed symphony. Coppola often buries Tetro’s brooding melody, losing himself in a swirl of cinematic flourishes that pay tribute to the visual styles of such divergent directors as Fellini and Michael Powell.

Coppola conjures up the surreal at the expense of the real, for instance when Tetro, Miranda and Bennie travel to a playwriting festival at a Patagonia resort. Not just an exercise in Felliniesque baroque, the scene also serves as Coppola’s crowded stage to lob poison pens at a pompous superstar critic (Carmen Maura).

In the grand Godfather movies (excepting the dreadful III, of course), a good deal of credit for their smashing success goes to Coppola's classical storytelling techniques that allowed his extraordinary cast to shine. In his eccentric post-Godfather “personal” films, Coppola seems to want to disown his past, much like Tetro. As with numerous directors of both New and Old Hollywood, Coppola functioned best when working with the apparent limitations of genre and a tight script. Artistically--and perhaps financially--he's never recovered from the heartfelt disaster of One from the Heart.

So while Tetro may impress audiences with its visual bravura, it finally says more about Coppola’s nostalgic and anachronistic preoccupations than anything about its characters. As the famed French critic André Bazin once asked, “An auteur, yes...but of what?”


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