Lionsgate // 2009 // 127 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // May 4th, 2010
Every family has a secret.
"If you had just one word to give away, who would you give it to?"
17-year-old Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich, Supernatural) hasn't seen his brother Angelo (Vincent Gallo, Moscow Zero) since he was a young boy. Journeying all the way from New York to Argentina to find Angelo, Bennie hopes that he'll be able to re-connect with his long-lost sibling. He does find Angelo, though his brother doesn't appear delighted to see him. Angelo has attempted to avoid thinking about his family for years, even going so far as to change his own name to "Tetro." Nonetheless, the visit from Bennie inspires plenty of memories. Over the course of the film, Bennie and "Tetro" get to know each other again as they mull over the troubling events from their past that led them to where they are now.
I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that Tetro is precisely the film Francis Ford Coppola set out to make. I also have no doubt the film is loaded with emotion and meaning for him. However, the film was essentially created for an audience of one: Coppola himself. The director has freely admitted in interviews that he is now focused on making movies that mean something to him personally, regardless of how much interest they hold for moviegoers. He essentially financed Tetro himself and boldly declared that he didn't even care about losing his money on the project. The cost of making the film was worth bringing it into existence for him. The question is whether or not this production (which Coppola also admits is very "self-indulgent") is worth the time of anyone else.
Well...yeah, I think so. Maybe. Coppola is such a gifted filmmaker (and experiencing such a resurgence of his creative powers on the technical side of things) that a work like Tetro can't help but be of interest to anyone with a real passion for film. It's just disappointing that Coppola isn't applying his gifts to a more compelling story. As in Youth Without Youth, the actual plot is rather simple and unspectacular; Coppola provides the illusion of complexity and confusion with his fragmented storytelling and vague meanderings. It's a C-level soap opera dressed up in an A-level costume.
Here's a litmus test of sorts. Bear with me, I only have two questions. First, are you familiar with the personal life of Francis Ford Coppola? Second, do you have an appreciation for the films of Powell & Pressburger? If the answer to one or both of those questions is "yes," then I would suggest giving the film a look, as it will probably intrigue you on some level. The parallels to Coppola's own life are endless; I won't even bother to begin listing them for fear I might never stop. Is Coppola trying to tell us something about himself? Actually, I don't think so. He's using deeply emotional elements of his own life in the service of a story, placing the emotion of those elements into the lives of his fictional characters. The trouble is that Coppola never finds a way to make his own feelings connect with the rest of us. Why should he? Tetro wasn't made for us, anyway. Even so, seeing the filmmaker mix-and-match assorted pieces of his Wikipedia entry in this feverish and unusual film is most...interesting.
The film never attempts to achieve any sort of realism, instead taking an over-the-top, operatic tone that increasingly attempts to rely on stylish sensations rather than on anything familiar and relatable. Coppola takes his cue from the aforementioned Powell & Pressburger, particularly The Tales of Hoffman and The Red Shoes, even going so far as to create his own P&P-inspired sequence in vivid color late in the film (in addition to incorporating extended clips from The Tales of Hoffman). As the film veers into strange third act and becomes stranger on a narrative level, it becomes more compelling on a cinematic level.
The performances are somewhat mixed. I've never been a big Vincent Gallo fan and Tetro did little to change my feelings towards the actor. He remains a somewhat dull screen presence, lacking both subtlety and charisma. Newcomer Ehrenreich fares considerably better, reminiscent of a young Leonardo DiCaprio at times. The biggest name in the cast is Klaus Maria Brandauer (Out of Africa), who does good work in some flashback scenes. However, the finest performance comes from Maribel Verdu (Pan's Labyrinth), who gives us the most fully-realized character as Tetro's endlessly patient girlfriend.
The hi-def transfer is certainly gorgeous, presenting the marvelous cinematography with exceptional detail and depth. The glossy color sequences look strong, but honestly it's the black-and-white bulk of the film that really manages to impress. Coppola isn't just adjusting the setting on his cameras to "grayscale," he clearly knows how to specifically shoot a film in black-and-white. Detail is excellent, blacks are deep and rich, shadow delineation is impressive. Grain gets just a bit heavy at times, but otherwise I have no complaints. I should also note that while the color scenes were shot in the same aspect ratio as the black-and-white scenes, they are contained within a 1.33:1 frame (essentially putting them inside a small box in the center of the screen). An odd decision, to be sure. Audio is excellent as well, as the film's rather complex sound mix is well-distributed though the speaker system. While the film is rather quiet much of the time, the mix is quite superb. Osvaldo Golijov contributes another excellent score, perhaps even more flavorful and diverse than his unusual work on Youth Without Youth. Collaborating with Golijov is quite possibly the best artistic decision Coppola has made since his return to the world of filmmaking.
Truthfully, I enjoyed watching the supplements even more than the film itself, as listening to Coppola talk about his intensely personal new process is even more fascinating than watching the results of that process. The biggest and best feature is a very revealing and engaging audio commentary with Coppola and Ehrenreich, which focuses on both the technical and thematic elements. After that, you get a series of brief but engaging featurettes: "The Ballet" (8 minutes), "Mahai Malaimare, Jr.: The Cinematography of Tetro" (8 minutes), "The Rehearsal Process" (8 minutes), "Osvaldo Golijov: Music Born in Film" (9 minutes), "La Colifata: I've Always Been Crazy" (5 minutes), "Fausta: A Drama in Verse" (4 minutes), plus an alternate "Tetro End Credits" (3 minutes).
The movie is technically magnificent, frustratingly thin on a narrative level, and competently acted. The Blu-ray looks good and offers some excellent supplements. I'd recommend a rental for serious film buffs; casual viewers are probably better off just skipping the movie altogether.
Guilty of being exactly what it wants to be.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 127 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Alternate End Credits