Because he spent much of the past two decades in the wilderness, churning out anonymous Hollywood product (Jack, John Grisham’s The Rainmaker, even the ill-advised Godfather III) before retreating to the safety of his Northern California vineyards, Francis Ford Coppola is now said to be “reinventing himself” as a maverick, self-financed indie filmmaker. Which is hogwash, of course. Coppola has always been a fiercely idiosyncratic talent, far more interested in personal expression than audience expectation; that he directed two of the most popular movies in the history of cinema was largely a fluke. With his most recent efforts, 2007’s Youth Without Youth and the current Tetro, he’s simply returned to the intimate-yet-grandiose mode of filmmaking that he’s always favored—a mode so stubbornly uncommercial that the major studios, after being burned multiple times throughout the ’80s, just refused to finance it anymore. So now, the independently wealthy Coppola writes his own checks, thereby allowing him to make, for better and for worse, exactly the crazy-ass, mesmerizingly erratic movies he’s been trying to create his entire life.
In this particular case, alas, it’s mostly for worse. Despite having made the definitive cinematic masterpiece about family (and Family), Coppola tends to run aground whenever he indirectly tackles his own overachieving brood, and Tetro—his first original screenplay since 1974’s The Conversation—is nothing if not clumsily disguised autobiography. The painfully sincere story kicks off when Bennie (newcomer Alden Ehrenreich), a 17-year-old cruise-ship busboy, disembarks in Buenos Aires in search of his much older half-brother Angelo (Vincent Gallo), who disowned his blood relations and fled the U.S. many years earlier. Turns out Angelo has rechristened himself Tetro—the clan’s surname is Tetrocini, but “tetro” is also Italian for “gloomy”—and now lives in churlish semi-bohemian repose with his girlfriend, Miranda (Maribel Verdú), making a cheap living operating the lights for a local theater company. Tetro is none too thrilled to see Bennie, though he takes him in anyway, and he gets even testier when Bennie finds an unfinished manuscript for a play buried in a closet and takes it upon himself to fashion the ending that Tetro was never able to dream up. The play’s subject? Why, Tetro and Bennie’s overbearing father (Klaus Maria Brandauer), a world-famous composer determined not to be upstaged by his offspring. “What happened to our family?” wonders their uncle, a symphony conductor (also Brandauer). “We used to be so promising.”
You don’t have to know the history of Zoetrope Studios, or that Coppola’s own father, Carmine, was a musician and composer, or that his two kids, Roman and Sofia, are themselves film directors (to say nothing of sister Talia Shire and nephews Nicolas Cage and Jason Schwartzman) to sense that there are some serious personal issues being worked out here. Indeed, Coppola has told a version of this story before, when he adapted S.E. Hinton’s Rumble Fish for the screen in 1983. Both films were shot in stark, high-contrast black-and-white (with occasional splashes of color); both feature a teenage protagonist consumed with hero-worship for his older brother, who’s deliberately turned his back on his allegedly glorious past. But while Coppola’s overheated visual style and ludicrously ripe dramaturgy felt apropos in the context of a young-adult narrative, those same tropes don’t remotely suit Tetro, which has been conceived more along the lines of the earnest Freudian stage plays that were in vogue during the director’s impressionable youth. The severe disconnect between the film’s stunning form and its largely asinine content proves disorienting, and surface beauty can carry a feature-length narrative only so far. David Mamet once aptly noted that anyone who leaves a movie and immediately begins raving about the cinematography has tacitly admitted that the script stank on ice. Tetro should win the Best Cinematography Oscar in a walk.