In 1972, a film about a family swept the world by storm. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, The Godfather was an epic retelling of King Lear in the wardrobe of the Sicilian Mafia in post-war America. The Godfather was a tale of brothers loving one another but chafing under sibling rivalry, partly born from the influence of a wise father. Coppola allowed the firmament to be the limit to his tale, and the picture was an instant classic which helped to alter the face of American cinema in the 1970s. Coppola's endearing, occasionally maddening fixation on the ties between brothers—brimming with trials and tribulations—continued in earnest with The Godfather: Part II as well as his essaying of adolescent brotherhood in The Outsiders and Rumble Fish. And so now it continues with Coppola's latest, Tetro.
Coppola's Tetro is a film that seeps into and out of the viewer like moisture. Iridescent and pellucid, fragmentary and oblique, all at once, it feels like a living organism that is ferociously but quietly seething, like an animal recently injured. Coppola veils this dyspeptic, tempestuous undercurrent with a luscious layer of visual serenity. It is like squeezing and spreading sweet frosting over a rough, nutty and tart apple coffeecake. Most of the film takes place in the ambiguously defined “present,” shot in an exquisitely sharp 2:35:1 with High Definition digital cameras employed by cinematographer Mihai Malaimare, Jr. to utter perfection. Few films shot in this format have so abundantly showcased the rationale for adopting the technology as Tetro, which creates nearly glittery palettes of richly-textured and -detailed tranquility. Coppola's Youth Without Youth was ponderous but inviting; cinematographically refined and polished, that picture was unfortunately too prepossessed with itself to completely, haphazardly present itself to the viewer the way two people first meet one another. Tetro is formal but with an unruly, brusque side, befitting its protagonist, the titular Tetro (a brooding, sullenly countenanced and erratically arbitrary yet entirely natural Vincent Gallo in one of the great performances of the decade); Coppola has resumed his dream to create bracing, personal art like a young, impulsive filmmaker with both everything and nothing to prove.
Coppola's Tetro is such an incredibly wounded film it could be just as ponderous and remote as Coppola's last film before it, but the director and screenwriter has allowed himself the room to navigate his personable tale of familial heartache and nearly-ensanguined tragedy. Periodically Coppola will intrude upon his own gloriously realized visage with pounding, startling excursions into the past, captured in comparatively grainy (shot on film), hand-held 1:85:1 color photography, looking like bumptious family video-camera shooting. These bubble up to the once-harmonious surface the way troubling, painful memories always do: the figures viewed as harmful, such as an imperious, egomaniacal and corrupt father figure (Klaus Maria Brandauer) are distorted, their faces always belying their spoken words. Vivid and eerily haunting, these episodic color sequences never disrupt Tetro's heedless momentum, and that has to do with Coppola's steady, almost omnipresent command—his Tetro feels like a film which, from the first frame onwards, is overlooked in its progression by its creator but never thwarted nor tripped up by ruinous excessive dabbling. That these episodes are also highly important in uncovering the shrouded truths of Tetro only increase their durability and import without ever diminishing the linear narrative's potency.
Everything about Tetro feels positively naïve in a most exuberantly beautiful way. Coppola has metamorphosed, it seems, and he follows through with the ostensible promise of his last film, which featured the word “Youth” not once but twice. Coppola's vernal sensibility is dazzlingly, deliciously refreshing. As too many truly young filmmakers exercise their craft under the umbrella of rampant, sometimes trendily poseur cynicism, Coppola at seventy years old is rediscovering youthfulness in its myriad sources of energy and genuineness. Tetro establishes that Coppola is not simply a votary—he has been quite truthful in his interviews: he has effectively gone back in time, and the results are exhilarating. Likewise, Coppola's insistence that he would think of Elia Kazan while shooting Tetro rings true as the film lingers within the mind. The performances seem to fit the black-and-white photography with a preternatural precision. Images of A Streetcar Named Desire, another classically-framed black-and-white drama with a nebulously humid and tropical environment (here Buenos Aires doubling for New Orleans), with characters revealing their true selves to the audience, one another and to themselves, flash as Tetro continues onward. Coppola nurtures these performances the way a gardener chaperons his beloved greenery. Coppola, it may be said, plays the sage father to the young performers, particularly the unknown Alden Ehrenreich as Bennie, whose limited on-screen dynamism may be chalked up to an inexperienced actor, or may be one of Coppola's ways to present the questioning character as a figure of comparative blankness. Since Bennie is the audience's surrogate—knowing as little about the enigmatic Tetro as the viewer—Coppola's drama begins with many a viewer perhaps holding onto Bennie the way a tired swimmer may grab a buoy in the ocean.
Quite gradually, however, Coppola and Gallo peel away the outer shell of Tetro, and this complex portrait is presented with an unapologetic, phlegmatic propinquity, displaying a fully formed being as a living, breathing perplexity. As the tale continues, it may be Tetro whose initially bizarre and perhaps outrageous behavior threatens to alienate some viewers, who is the more principled of the two brothers. Bennie's curiosity leads to breaking Tetro's trust—not an uncommon problem between family members, much less one in which the relationships are this strained. Tetro's live-in girlfriend, an angelically beautiful Argentinian named Miranda (a poignant Maribel Verdú), understands the titular figure in a way no other person on the world can. The back-story to their bond is afforded much needed time by Coppola and his legendary editing partner, Walter Murch, and so when that bond is tested by the imposition of Bennie, the breaking of Miranda's remarkable endurance in the face of Tetro's often overwhelming inability to display himself in all honesty to even her, much less to anyone else.
Coppola's indefatigable presence as an authentically Italian-American voice helps to shed light on the meanings of Tetro. Naturally, the picture is not “legitimately” autobiographical, but the truths the tale uncovers are so specific, they must at the very least touch a palpable chord with all who have felt the exhausting, desolating pain of a family compelled to lie to itself, or the ugliness of being hurt by those one loves. Like the adopted Tom Hagen in The Godfather: Part II, Bennie's near-idolization of Tetro only helps to make the bitter, salt-in-the-wounds lashing he receives from him sting all the more. (“Why do you hurt me, Michael?” Tom once asked.) Like a kaleidoscopic trip through Fellini's cinema, Tetro is at once burningly personal to its creator and doubtless deceptive in its myriad details. This mirrors the cryptic, only partially revelatory comments of the man behind the film. “Nothing in it happened, but it's all true,” Coppola has said of his latest opus. As the picture mirrors known aspects of Coppola's life—his father, like Tetro's, was a musical composer, and he has said that he has had a somewhat tumultuous relationship with his brother—Tetro is his most nakedly, vulnerably personal film.
It is parlous to delve too deeply into Tetro's filmic treasures. This is finally the consummation of Coppola's marriage between art and commercial demands, but now Coppola's artistically-minded focus—always operatic, here played out like a composition of Bellini or Verdi meshed with vaudevillian three-ring circuses that emit a rambunctious, anything-can-happen vibe and jubilantly hedonistic sexual discoveries (the latter both extending the kinship with Fellini)—is brighter, his instincts more pleasurably unrestrained. Many critics have failed Tetro because they have not caught on to Coppola's piquantly rediscovered virtuosity. The Godfather staged the death of a man's soul against the Catholic backdrop of baptism. In Tetro, the truths of family (“Every Family Has A Secret,” the film's tag-line promises) are so awful they make one recoil, and gaze, like a pitiful deer into ineffably, brilliantly blinding headlights. Yet Coppola does not relinquish his newfound youthful confidence—Tetro finally concludes on a note of resigned reconciliation. Thirty years ago, Coppola released Apocalypse Now, the film conventionally referred to as his final operatic masterpiece. In 2009, he has gifted filmgoers with another composition, and one of the best films of the year.