For some time a friend of mine in Madrid has been bugging me to check out a new Spanish language film he enjoyed last year called Tetro, as the film was directed by the tumultuous Francis Ford Coppola it was already on my radar as a potential return to form from a director who is best known for a quartet of movies which could arguably be considered the finest sequential run in cinema history – The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather Part 2, Apocalypse Now - and a subsequent disintegration of talent throughout the intervening thirty years. I think this is slightly unfair, anyone hoping to equal that run is facing a herculean task in the first instance, in the second he has actually made some solid if less ambitious movies since the Seventies including The Rainmaker, Gardens of Stone, The Outsiders and personal favourites of mine Peggy Sue Got Married and Rumble Fish although I would concur that the Robin Williams vehicle Jack is an atrocity which perhaps can never be forgiven. As is my habit from time to time I went into the NFT hosted Tetro preview almost completely blind, I have watched half the trailer and seen some of the lavish looking photography which has led me to the shaky assertion that this could be Coppola emulating the particularly fruitful period of Sixties European art cinema and I’m guessing he is using the likes of Fellini, Passolini and Antonioni as his reference points. Was I correct? Well, let’s see….
Any film with Vincent Gallo in it is usually worth a look, if only for the potential of lunacy (which reminds me I must take a look at this again, I haven’t seen it since its release back in 1998) and in Tetro he plays the titular figure, a struggling poet and writer who has exiled himself to Buenos Aires after divorcing himself from the environment of his suffocatingly wealthy and artistic family, his famous composer father being a particularly unwanted manipulator of his potentially burgeoning talent. Shacked up with his partner Miranda (the sultry Maribel Verdu, the lead resistance woman from Pans Labyrinth) Tetro receives an unexpected visit from Bennie, his teenage step-brother who has also fled the family home to seek an explanation for his brothers’ abandonment and possibly follow a similarly liberating path through life, an ambition of creative endeavours unsullied by unwanted interference or control. The brothers are not the best of buddies but an uneasy friendship begins to emerge under Miranda’s tutelage, as Bennie unearths and reads his siblings secretly abandoned plays and prose some of their tragic families submerged history begins to surface….
This is the first script that Coppola has penned since 1974’s The Conversation and it is stuffed with autobiographical elements, like his central character in the film Coppola comes from a flamboyantly artistic family and rather tellingly his father was the composer Carmine Coppola whom had worked on many of his sons projects. Through its sumptuous photography – Tetro’s monochrome imagery rivalling that of last years The White Ribbon – and its employment of vividly coloured flashbacks to the families history and past Coppola seems to be aiming for an operatic grandeur to the film so it’s a shame that the film resorts to more of a melodramatic flavour in many scenes and plot strands, deflating its potential and lofty ambitions, most particularly in its misjudged final scenes and unsatisfying conclusion. That said the picture is not without its merits, Tetro is a film about families and their complex relationships, a common theme of Coppola’s work and its inquisition into how our kindred simultaneously binds, bonds and grips us together on the one hand whilst strangling, choking and entangling us on the other is reasonably compelling.
The focus on family and human relations in an evocatively captured locale echo Passolini, the grasp of theatrical flair during scenes of Tetro and his friends staging their amateur dramatics parallel Fellini, particularly during the closing gala where the fictitious world of the play and realm of the real intertwine in an ambitiously self-reflexive way, then there is an audacious series of Michael Powell homage’s with core facets of Tales Of Hoffman being directly imprinted into the films DNA. Gallo is unusually restrained in the central role, his core shtick of the tortured artist serving the film well without his frequent overblown histrionics that he has repeated on and off screen throughout his career. Newcomer Alden Ehrenreich as his young brother seems to be aping a younger DiCaprio performance and I’m sure he’ll be seen in more mainstream work whilst Maribel Verdu providing a calming counterbalance to the siblings extremes. Critics have been pigeonholed the film into a typical ‘late-period’ genre of a directors work where the film-making attracts accusations of being indulgent and somewhat over-wrought, whether or not you would enjoy Tetro I think depends very much on your appetite, if you’re in the mood for a greasy cheeseburger then Iron Man 2 is still out, if however your palette aches for some cordon bleu then Tetro may be a more fulfilling meal, despite its uneven blend of ingredients.
The closest approximation of Tetro to Coppola’s previous projects is of course Rumble Fish given their similar aesthetics and narratives pivoting on an idealistic younger brother idolising his older sibling, it was a film which had a significant impact on me back in my impressionable teenage years. At the wizened old age of fifteen I remember seeing a review of Tucker: The Man And His Dream on what must have been Film ’88 and was subsequently distraught when it didn’t arrive at our local multiplex, next to Carpenter and Kubrick the Italian maestro was one of the first directors whose work I particularly loved and actively sought out on TV and VHS, a filmmaker whose articles and interviews were diligently hunted down through film and cinema periodicals. Despite his recent efforts, I’m also sad to report that his previous film Youth Without Youth was another ill-judged misfire I think it’s fair to say he has crafted some indelible screen moments that have entered the vernacular:
OK, maybe not so popular so how about this scene:
Ah, now I’ve got it, third time lucky;