Francis Ford Coppola has stated about his latest film, "Tetro," that "nothing in it happened, but all of it is true."
This makes sense. "Tetro," written and directed by Coppola, has the look and style of a film that should be about the iconic director and his equally iconic, or at least famously infamous, family.
Yet, nothing about "Tetro" actually FEELS personal. While "Tetro" quite often soars to the heights of the best of Coppola's films, it ultimately never achieves their greatness because, for all the film's beauty and hypnotic imagery, I can't ever recall a time during the film's 2 hours plus running time that I felt anything for any of the characters...well, except for Maribel Verdu's Miranda, and I'm not entirely convinced that had anything to do with the film.
Despite a nearly complete lack of emotional connection to the film, the most dumbfounding thing of all is that "Tetro" works quite magnificently without it.
In the film, Vincent Gallo is Tetro, the estranged son of a famous conductor (Klaus Maria Brandauer) now living in Buenos Aires with the beautiful Miranda (Maribel Verdu), his former psychologist turned lover. It is obvious quite early on that Tetro is damaged, and despite having promised his brother that he would one day return for him he actually has no intention of ever doing so. A largely unaccomplished writer seemingly working running lights at a local theatre, Tetro seems connected only to Miranda and, perhaps, that is as much out of necessity as it is actual love.
Until Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich), his brother, turns up himself one day while working as a waiter on a cruise ship currently docked nearby for repairs.
It's not so much how the rest of "Tetro" evolves as it is how Coppola presents it onscreen. Filmed in a simply gorgeous black and white by Coppola and cinematographer Mihai Malaimare, Jr., "Tetro" contains only jarring moments of color splashed onscreen, usually during the film's semi-frequent flashback scenes.
It should come as no surprise that there will be an uneasy dance between denial and familial bonds as Bennie is welcomed into the home by Miranda while being kept at arm's length by Tetro. Tetro himself will be required to deal with locked away life experiences and emotions, while Bennie is hungering for answers to questions about his life that only Tetro can answer.
While Coppola's storytelling skills continue to flounder, "Tetro" more than gets by on the strength of Coppola's ability to construct a visually arresting and compelling film even when the story and the dialogue border on uninteresting.
As Tetro, the brother barely holding family secrets within, Vincent Gallo is a near perfect complement for Coppola's visual style of storytelling. Gallo brought to mind Michael Pitt's incredibly underrated performance in Gus Van Sant's "Last Days," a performance in which the character's body language and physical poetry substituted for actual dialogue or cohesive story. The same is often true here, as Gallo paints the portray of Tetro often without words and, even when using words, his body is often more revealing. At times exaggerated and at times understated, Gallo's performance is as much performance art as it is acting.
Newcomer Alden Ehrenreich, at least initially, gives an uncomfortable performance as young man searching for answers about his past. Yet, over the course of the film, the beauty of Ehrenreich's performance reveals itself as one is never 100% sure if Bennie is simply a manipulative branch of the family tree or a genuine young man without a clue. Ehrenreich, who bears a resemblance to a young Leonardo DiCaprio, so transforms himself by film's end that it becomes abundantly clear that the uncomfortableness of his early performance was out of necessity.
As strong as Gallo and Ehrenreich are, the true revelation of "Tetro" is, indeed, Maribel Verdu's passionate and vibrant performance as Miranda, the only person who has maintained a near constant loyalty to the unpredictable and often unbearable Tetro. Verdu wears both beauty and compassion in her eyes, and there is a subtle tenderness in her performance that gives the film a desperately needed touch of emotional depth.
As "Alone," a noted Argentinian theatre critic and organizer of the country's largest festival, Carmen Maura is mesmerizing in her few scenes, while Klaus Maria Brandauer is sufficiently magnetic and abrasive as the larger than life father figure for Tetro.
Filmed in English and Spanish with English subtitles, Francis Ford Coppola's "Tetro" is a reminder of just how great the iconic director was at the top of his game with "The Godfather" films and "Apocalypse Now." While "Tetro" doesn't reach the heights of those films, it is a brave and bold and original film from a director who had, until his most recent films, seemingly been relegated to glorious memories.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic