2009 // USA - Italy - Argentina // Francis Ford Coppola // September 8, 2009 // Theatrical Print
B - There's a searing line in Michael Chabon's hardboiled / speculative history novel, The Yiddish Policemen's Union, from a scene where half-Jewish, half-Tlingit police detective Berko Shemets confronts his estranged father. "It has nothing to do with religion," he howls, "It has everything to do, God damn it, with fathers!" With a slight adjustment, this could be the tagline of Francis Ford Coppola's Tetro, a film fashioned from equal parts unabashed passion and tightly-wound bitterness. In it we are introduced to the Tetrocinis, a clan for whom literature, film, dance, and especially music are sustenance. Tetro isn't really about art, however; it's about fathers. Coppola himself is the son of the composer Carmine Coppola, and his family is perhaps the most renowned tribe in cinema, comprising daughter Sofia, sister Talia Shire, and nephews Nicholas Cage and Jason Schwartzman, to name a few. While it's not particularly illuminating to psychoanalyze a director through his work, it's probably a safe bet that the operatic and yet mischievous Tetro is Coppola's most personal work in years. In those places where the film stumbles, it's due to tonal awkwardness and narrative silliness. Nonetheless, Tetro's visuals are sumptuous, its audacity invigorating, and its pathos deeply felt.
Much of the film takes place in Argentina, which Coppola and cinematographer Mahai Malaimare Jr. shoot in sumptuous black-and-white, evoking the joyfulness and slightly forlorn qualities of Fellini's Italy. The just-shy-of-eighteen Bennie Tetrocini (Alden Ehrenreich, the finest of Leonardo DiCaprio clones) has come to Buenos Aires to find his older half-brother, Angelo (Vincent Gallo), who left home a decade ago on a writing sabbatical. Bennie discovers his brother living in a sad little apartment with a near-wife, Miranda (Maribel Verdú), who is both loyal and painfully confident in Angelo's genius. Unfortunately, the volatile and suspicious Angelo, who now insists on the name "Tetro," hasn't written anything in years. He spends his time lingering in the orbit of a group of theater oddballs, who are staging a production of Faust that is part poetry-quipping drag spectacle and part burlesque act. Bennie is perplexed and mildly angered at Tetro's situation, given that he has longed to see his brother for years. "You promised you would come and get me," he reminds Tetro. Despite the gulf of years between them, the brothers have a shared misery. Their father, the conductor Carlo Tetrocini, is an arrogant man disposed to acts of baffling cruelty.
Bennie eventually uncovers Tetro's unfinished magnum opus, a hodgepodge of coded scrawlings secreted away in a suitcase. The manuscript is, naturally, a thinly veiled autobiographical novel about the elder Tetrocini and all the miseries he has inflicted on his relations. Bennie begins to read, to learn something of the father he barely knows. Coppola uses this as a cue for flashbacks shot in color with a narrower 1:85 aspect ratio, although these sequences may just be Tetro's imaginings of past events. These scenes mostly serve to establish beyond a shadow of a doubt that Carlo Tetrocini is an arrogant son of a bitch. When Tetro leaves on his sabbatical, his father acidly mocks him in public, "What will you write about?" Tetro whispers his reply, "This."
Coppola's story has the outlines of a conventional family tragedy, but in its details and mounting it plays more as a fairy tale. At three separate junctures, the film digresses into luscious dance sequences that reflect and reveal aspects of the main storyline. These dance pieces are accented with visual effects that lend them an otherworldly feel, as though they were allegorical pop-up chapters of Tetro's tale. These sequences alone are the most visually arresting thing that Coppola has done since his flirtation with self-consciously fake sets and effects in Bram Stoker's Dracula. Yet the exaggerated aspects of Tetro extend to the narrative details of the primary story as well. The Tetrocinis seem to dwell in an alternate universe of sorts, one where art is more accessible and more vital than in our own. Symphony conductors have rock star reputations and groupies, ragtag theater troupes can waltz into international drama competitions with the right play, and misunderstood, misanthropic geniuses can be found wasting away in asylums. This slightly absurd tone suffuses the film, and even threatens to derail it at the climax, which occurs at a baroque festival where a grande dame of the Argentinean arts holds court. Coppola certainly never asks us to accept his tale as authentic, but Tetro does suffer from excesses even within the confines of its fantastical universe. The blend of grave melodrama and the outlandish never gels into the alluring whole that Coppola is striving for. (In other words, it is further evidence that Apocalypse Now was something like bottled lightning.)
That said, one can't deny the genuine feeling that oozes from the film's pores. Coppola regards even his cartoonish characters seriously, eschewing mockery for humor that relies on cutting remarks and bawdy situations. For a film that is concerned at bottom with familial cruelty and deception, Tetro exhibits little misanthropy. Coppola indicts Carlo Tetrocini for his monstrousness, but he paints the old man as such an unmitigated bastard that the film's thematic thrust obviously goes beyond, "Fathers Fuck Us Up." Coppola is also interested in the way that families respond to destructive influences from within, and why it is that individuals construct different edifices and moral codes to deal with those influences. What's refreshing is that the director doesn't come down in favor of any one path out of familial darkness over any other. Instead he intimates that the deeply personal nature of our struggles with the past should not preclude bonds with others, a surprisingly warm sentiment from a director whose masterworks have relied on the isolating nature of the human experience. It's enough to give one encouragement that, the waning of his cinematic intuition aside, Coppola remains a film-maker committed to exploring new territory in aesthetically compelling ways.