There was a moment in local film titan Francis Ford Coppola's self-released new movie, not long after its stylish opening credits, when I thought, "Wait: Are we in for two hours of slamming doors and soprano sax? Uh oh."
But no, actually, we were in for more than that. Coppola may make off-putting choices sometimes, but stasis isn't one of them. And anyway, what had I been expecting? Tetro is, after all, an operatic, Oedipal melodrama of estranged brothers reuniting in Buenos Aires and falling into an aggressively collaborative creative response to inherited sibling rivalries and buried family secrets.
It's also Coppola's first original screenplay since his 1974 masterpiece, The Conversation. The real reason that matters, I think, is as a qualification: Tetro reveals how dramatically the advancement of Coppola's directing skills has outpaced that of his dramatization skills. Of the latter, he's rusty and needs more practice is all, and it's encouraging to see him getting it. Of the former: wow, what a beauty.
This partially explains how Tetro, which refers to other movies but isn't like other movies, can seem to me like both an aggravation and an inspiration. In all the best and worst ways, it is arty and amateur -- a throwback, not just for its allusions to Coppola's own family dynamics but also for its guileless infatuation with cinema, with the aura of the old world, with quaint ideas of manly bohemianism.
The Tetrocini brothers, Angelo and Bennie, grew up together in America, with different mothers and a domineering, famous-musician father (Klaus Maria Brandauer). One day, for ostensible reasons of artistic emancipation, the tortured genius Angelo (Vincent Gallo) fled the nest, leaving behind only a promise that eventually he'd come back for the much younger Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich).
But he hasn't lived up to his promise, probably because he hasn't lived up to his potential. Now he goes by the name of Tetro, and spends his angsty days among the Argentine scenesters, doing lights for a drag version of Faust, stashing away the jotted scraps of an unfinished, unpublished literary opus, and cohabitating with the notably maternal lover (Maribel Verdú) he picked up at an asylum (he stayed there; she worked there).
And now Bennie, who took a job on a cruise-ship presumably with the strategic goal of shore leave in Buenos Aires, has tracked his big brother down. But instead of welcoming the visit, Tetro tends to narrow his glittering reptile eyes and make dour pronouncements, like, "You know what love is in a family like ours, Bennie? It's a quick stab in the heart." So yes, they have a lot of catching up to do.
Contrasts are of the essence here; Coppola luxuriates in cinematographer Mihai Malaimare's luminous black-and-white DV imagery (reserving color for flashbacks and the occasional Powell-Pressburger reference), and Gallo's air of inglorious integrity has a natural foil in the newcomer Ehrenreich's disarming vitality. By design, both performances seem at once obliging and refractory, like the film itself.
Yes, Tetro is a willful vision. That it seems so overworked but still so unfinished is how I know it's also a genuine one.