Lionsgate // 2009 // 127 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Michael Rubino (Retired) // May 7th, 2010
"There's room for only one genius in this family..."
Francis Ford Coppola continues his indie-film comeback with another stunningly photographed bit of self-financed melodrama. Better yet, this time it actually makes sense.
Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich), a 17-year-old cruise ship busboy, arrives at his estranged brother, Angelo's (Vincent Gallo, Buffalo 66), doorstep in Buenos Aires. Angelo goes by "Tetro" now, and his dreams of escaping his family and becoming a worldly writer seem to have evaporated in a cloud of cynicism and aloofness. He's also living with someone, a beautiful therapist named Miranda (Maribel Verdú), who has enough hospitality to make up for Tetro's ambivalence towards Bennie.
Bennie's stay is supposed to be finite, merely a way to reconnect with his brother while his cruise ship undergoes repairs. After a few days, and countless failed attempts to get close to Tetro, Bennie discovers his brother's unpublished writing, and begins to piece together his puzzling family history.
Francis Ford Coppola is at a point in his career where he can self-finance any movie he wants. He's not concerned with critical acceptance or commercial success; he's had enough of that. He can be as self-indulgent as he likes. In the case of his previous film, Youth Without Youth, his personal tastes veered into beautiful yet confusing pretentiousness. This time, things turn out much better. Tetro is a superior film that retains, and in many ways outdoes, his masterful visual style while conveying a compelling, and linear, story.
Tetro is a melodrama about a dysfunctional upper class family -- a story about the souring effect of a "genius" world-class symphony conductor has on defiant children. It's also about a man getting up the courage to follow his creative urges, rejecting the views of critics in favor of discovering personal truths. The film borrows many elements from Coppola's own life, and at a runtime of over two hours, he takes his time getting this all out there. Thankfully, the textured world of Buenos Aires, with its cobbled streets and peeling walls, is populated with enough well-drawn characters to keep things interesting even when the plot drags.
The story of Bennie and Tetro develops in bursts with plenty of lingering character moments in between. Coppola's screenplay could have used some trimming, especially during the film's second act adventure to an awards show in Patagonia. The major beats in the story, supported by flashbacks and dream sequences, act as clues leading up to the film's final twist -- a twist that, at first, seemed unwarranted. Coppola knows what he's doing, however, and the film eventually ends on a satisfying note.
Throughout the movie, it's hard to truly care about Tetro, the enigmatic, tortured writer who stumbles into the film on crutches, kicking around chairs and lighting a cigarette with a stove burner. He's so aloof, and so bi-polar, that I almost wanted him to fail. That's largely because of Vincent Gallo's top-notch performance: his look may be channeling Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon, but his anger is more subtle, seething. Instead of wanting him to succeed, you root for Bennie, played with a spunky naiveté by Alden Ehrenreich. Bennie's trying so hard to learn something about his past, his family, and his brother yet he continues to get shunned; he even carries with him a letter Tetro once wrote, promising to return someday. The third wheel, Tetro's wife Miranda, is a fountain of sympathy and hospitality. Maribel Verdú plays her with a motherly compassion, and is completely accepting of all the familial baggage Bennie brings to her doorstep. The trio have great chemistry together, and even play nicely with the supporting cast of zany locals -- the film is populated with a fair share of caricatures, like a desperate theater owner, a cross-dressing auteur, and a vicious theater critic simply known as "Alone."
Coppola's own background with theater and the symphony play an integral part in the film's narrative structure. In an interesting twist, Tetro's striking black and white visuals give way to full-color, 1.85:1 ratio, flashbacks and dream sequences, most of which are operatic dance numbers. The sequences are used as a way of displaying the characters' emotional history, rather than blatant re-enactments (although there some of those as well). According to the supplements, it's the first time Coppola's worked in a full blue screen environment, and while the CGI isn't the most realistic, it's fairly effective.
The majority of the film, however, is shot in black and white with a super wide 2.35:1 aspect ratio. It's absolutely beautiful. Cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. (Youth Without Youth) has outdone himself, managing to make digital HD cameras look as gritty and textural as a W. Eugene Smith photo. Every frame is filled with precisely the right imagery, and the lighting is as expressive and selective as the film's score. It's clear that Tetro is a film crafted by master technicians, and goes beyond simply being in "black and white." It's expressive, bold, and a work of art.
The DVD transfer does a fairly good job of maintaining the film's stellar imagery. The black and white footage looks sharp with great contrast and wide range of gray tones. The color footage is decent, although it occasionally became over-saturated -- which may have been intentional. Either way, it's a great looking film. It's also backed up by a superb audio track. Composer Osvaldo Golijov crafted a powerful blend of bossa nova and classical music into a score that is appropriately moody and moving.
The feature is joined by two hours of supplements, including an audio commentary track with Coppola and Ehrenreich. While it doesn't seem like they're actually in the same room together, both have plenty to add about the film. Coppola is the kind of guy who isn't afraid to talk about his art and his inspirations, and this track is no exception. He's engaging and insightful. There is also a slew of featurettes covering various aspects of the film's production. Each shares the same excellent production values, with interviews from the cast and crew as well as behind-the-scenes footage. There is also an extended version of the "Fausta" play performed in the movie, and a look at the real asylum patients used in the "La Colifata" radio scene.
Tetro is easily one of Coppola's best films in recent memory. It's a personal and expertly photographed melodrama that's both accessible and artistic. While the plot may be a little slow at times, the characters are worth experiencing. Sometimes self-indulgent filmmaking is a good thing.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (CC)
Running Time: 127 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Alternate Credits