Tetro: Francis Coppola's small scale curio
Francis Ford Coppola’s new film, Tetro, is being billed by the director himself as a return to the type of independent, small-scale filmmaking he’s always wanted to do. Finally freed from taking the hack-for-hire jobs he was stuck with in the 90s, and no longer able to command the budgets for the large-scale art film masterpieces he made in the ‘70s, Coppola traveled to Argentina for Tetro, taking a small cast and crew with him. Shot on high definition video from a screenplay he wrote himself, his first since The Conversation, Coppola’s film is a deeply personal, not-quite autobiographical tale of two brothers, a father, a girlfriend, and a group of freewheeling artists living in Buenos Aires. It’s a movie that probably no major studio would have financed nor, more to the point, known what to do with once it was finished.Tetro may stand as yet another much-ballyhooed milestone in Coppola’s career, with much of the ballyhooing supplied by Francis himself, but as a movie, as an experience, as an art film, as a piece of entertainment, it is only fitfully successful. The movie is mostly a curio, hardly memorable in any way, suffering under the weight of a thin, rambling story and a couple of unappealing performances.
The movie is about two long-lost American brothers coming together, one a waiter on a cruise ship, the other a reclusive would-be genius writer who has apparently penned an eccentric story about their past, which includes a domineering father, a dead mother and a girlfriend.
The present tense scenes are filmed in black and white—
gorgeous but also rather pointless—and the flashbacks are shot in saturated, grainy color. For my money, the flashbacks are the best parts of the film. They are dense with familial mystery, and acted with a brittle, bitter honesty by the great Klaus Maria Brandauer. These sequences suggest a past much more interesting and vital than the present, and that is where Coppola’s movie should stay.
But most of the picture takes place in a bohemian present, and the two actors playing the brothers, newcomer Alden Ehrenreich and the always brooding Vincent Gallo, have little to add to the backstory. They engage in a frustrating kind of expository dance, withholding important information until a final reveal that is rendered in a dramatically stagnant short speech by Gallo’s character. From a director fond of operatic flourishes and brilliant cinematic climaxes, the surprise ending of Tetro is staged like an afterthought.
The impact is diluted further by the presence of Vincent Gallo. A distinctly unappealing actor who rarely acts but shows up now and then in arty ads in glossy magazines like Vanity Fair and GQ, Gallo looks and behaves as if he is has having a horrible time and hates everyone around him. It’s hard to care about a guy when you’re constantly asking yourself why any other character in the movie would have anything to with him.
He’s an annoying presence in a movie that is meandering, implausible, and, with its Fellini-esque detours and plodding rhythms, too baroque to be anything other than off-putting.