“You can’t look into the light”
I had heard that Francis Ford Coppola’s first film in a decade, 2007’s Youth Without Youth, skewed more toward the arthouse, experimental spectrum of cinema. After his early masterpieces, including the bloated budget of Apocalypse Now, his career went the way of minor Hollywood-fare, like Jack and The Rainmaker. One might have assumed he’d retired from the director’s chair until the success of his daughter, and son, (come on Roman, stop being assistant to your family members and make that sophomore film), showed what he could do in the field. His new work, Tetro, shows an extremely personal touch and seemingly is more the result of an up-and-comer than a proven auteur. While the film itself may be laboriously slow and somewhat of a chore to sit through its entirety, one cannot deny the craft put in, nor the skillful eye used. Composed of black and white stock—the only color coming in flashbacks or dream sequences—and shot in mostly close-up and skewed angles, Tetro deliberately peels back the layers of secrets making up the Tetrocini family, showing us what really caused our titular character’s meltdown as well as how he may still be saved.
It all begins more or less straightforwardly as we see young Bennie arrive in Buenos Aires upon a cruise ship he has been working on. The craft needs repairs and will be docked for a week, giving him some down time to visit his brother Angelo whom he hasn’t seen in years. The eldest boy, now going by the name Tetro, shortened from his last name, ran away to go on sabbatical in order to write. Never good enough for his famous father, Tetro hid away in South America and severed all ties to his life in America, including his young brother, who he had written a letter saying that he’d be back to take him away. Bennie viewed his sibling as a hero, someone in the arts that was willing to go after his dream. As a result, he left military school and joined the cruise ship to travel and perhaps write something himself. The collision of these two men—two creatures that are linked with love as well as rivalry, much like their father and uncle—shines the light on what really happened to Angelo. With family thrust upon him, Tetro slowly breaks down his barriers to accept Bennie into his life, until he is betrayed. The newcomer decides that his brother needs a success to turn the corner on his past, so he takes it upon himself to find the coded pages long since put away and turn it into a play good enough to compete for a festival prize.
My true feelings about the film are conflicted. The first half of the tale, leading us to Bennie’s planned departure progresses in a linear manner and with a steady pace. It is at the point where the boy decides to save his brother, in effect breaking all trust with him and the elder’s need for isolation from Angelo Tetrocini, a man he used to be but has since died in his mind, that the story gets both very intriguing and very slow. The second half drags on and on, sometimes at an excruciating pace, yet at the same time brings some visual flair that is stunning. The colored dreamlike moments, visual representations of the emotions the brothers feel when thinking about the play based upon their lives, are absolutely beautiful. We see the car crash that kills Tetro’s mother, (Bennie’s is different, a woman now in a coma for nine years), but only when we see the staged version do you feel the sorrow. The line on the road of blood, smearing as the body of the woman is spun around in a ballet-like dance is unforgettable. Scenes like that are followed by massive setpieces drawing you in just as you thought it couldn’t get more trying to stay in your seat. A funeral scene, complete with an orchestra surrounding the coffin, a chorus of boys on a staircase, and a gorgeous sequence walking into traffic with cars veering left and right in more a choreography than a true line of cars stuck with me.
These moments had me mesmerized, much like Tetro is by the glares of lights, whether fluorescent bulbs or reflective mountains, calling to memory the headlights coming toward him the night his mother passed away. Helping keep my interest was also some wonderful performances by the cast. Maribel Verdú is perfect as the nurturing voice of reason to counteract the mercurial tempests her love Tetro stirs up, Miranda; Mike Amigorena is just far enough into campiness to effectively portray the actor/playwright Abelardo, setting the bar for other characters to be just over the edge into the hyperreal; and Alden Ehrenreich handles the second lead of Bennie with success, if not a bit rough as any newcomer would be. His turn reminded me not only of Leonardo DiCaprio’s role of Romeo, but of the actor in every way. Whether his career follows the same path or not remains to be seen, but being “discovered” by Spielberg at a batmitzvah isn’t a bad way to break into the industry.
The welcome surprise of it all, however, is the deserved top billing of Buffalo-born Vincent Gallo as Tetro. His soft-spoken voice does wonders in keeping the audience off balance, contrasting his strong temper and multiple instances of flying off the handle. But he also succeeds in the quiet moments where Coppola lingers on his face as he thinks or becomes engrossed in the lights or his own fears and inhibitions. The ultimate secret hidden beneath the surface may not be the most original, or the most surprising, but it does fit the story to a tee. Tetro is dark, mysterious, and, at the same time, full of life. It is not a film I will be forgetting about anytime soon, but unfortunately the reasons aren’t always good ones. It will take a certain type of person to truly enjoy this offering—equal parts film school exercise of cinema at its basic form and overlong opus serving to unburden the creator more than entertain the audience. Probably worthy of dissection by critics and professors alike, it just doesn’t quite cut it as entertainment, not really making a second viewing necessary or wanted.
Tetro 6/10 | ★ ★ ½