Review: Tetro (2009)

Director: Francis Ford Coppola

****

“And lo, while Spielberg continued to rake in the millions and Scorsese finally won his Oscar, Coppola tended grapes in the Napa, periodically emerging to make stylistic curios.”

At some stage, someone must have reminded Francis Ford Coppola that he made The Godfather, or he realized grape-stomping can’t completely fulfill him artistically. In either case, Tetro builds on the visually interesting but overly-plotted experiment that was Youth Without Youth, and emerges as a fine return to form, Coppola’s best in two decades. To avoid having this film disappear into relative obscurity, Coppola needed something special in here. The lead character is an egotistical but misunderstood genius. Quick, call Vincent Gallo! Yup, the biggest ego in movies made a movie with one of Hollywood’s biggest megalomaniacs; hit the dirt!

The film begins with Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich) arriving in Buenos Aires seeking his brother who ran away from home years before. However, Bennie’s youth and hopes leave him unprepared for what awaits him. His brother Angelo (Vincent Gallo) has changed his name to Tetro, lives with his partner (Pan’s Labyrinth’s Maribel Verdú) and does odd jobs at his friend’s (Rodrigo de la Serna) theatre. A misunderstood genius, Tetro distances himself constantly from his past and his family, and Bennie’s arrival threatens his fragile façade. When we first meet Tetro, his leg is bound after he broke it in an accident. Knowing Gallo, it wouldn’t be surprising if he took a sledgehammer to his tibia before shooting began. Despite his rep, Gallo is an ideal candidate for the role of Tetro. His understatement and subtlety is excellent, as well as providing a counterpoint to his traditionally inflated ego.

That understatement is an anchor for the rest of the film; as we know, Coppola has a keen eye for visual beauty, and Tetro is nothing short of sumptuous. Mostly shot in crisp black and white by Mihai Malaimare, Tetro has much in common with its title character; a cool veneer periodically erupting into full-on colourful outbursts. Descents into the characters’ imaginations are bright bordering on gaudy, as dancers tango on beaches and stages. It’s a step up fromYouth Without Youth’s experiments, and the cinematography orders you to stare in awe. This isn’t a complaint, however, because the story meanders as the plot goes on. Much to Tetro’s chagrin, Bennie finds success as a writer, and the relationship between the brothers shifts back and forth between strained and amicable. As new characters come and go (including a delicious cameo by Almódovar’s muse, Carmen Maura), and the relationship between the brothers shift from vim to violence, the emotional interest of the viewer is worn out well before the end. However, the visuals do command the audience’s attention while Verdú, and Ehrenreich in particular, compliment Gallo’s understatement with energy and aplomb. Strangely enough, this film has much in common with Gilliam’s recent Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Both have a definite atmosphere, great performances from troubled leads, and colourful segments of pure whimsy and imagination. Whilst the latter remains emotionally ragged, Tetro remembers to engage both the eyes and the imagination.

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