Tetro (2009): Coppola–Another Comeback? Starring Vincent and Alden Ehrenreich

Cannes Film Fest 2009 (Directors Fortnight, Opener)--Francis Ford Coppola’s “Tetro” is an intriguing meditation on life and art, a work in which context and subtext are far more important than text per se. 
Likely to divide critics (and audiences), “Tetro” received its world premiere at the Cannes Film Fest as opening night of Directors Fortnight, having been rejected by the more prestigious competition series.  That said, artistically, “Tetro” is more interesting than some of the competition films I have seen so far, including “Fish Tank” and “Spring Fever.”

 

At 70, Coppola has reached a point in his career where he can practically make any movie he wants.  Indeed, “Tetro,” a follow-up to “Youth Without Youth,” is a self-financed independent feature, shot in Buenos Aires with an international cast, which includes American, Spanish, and Argentinian thesps.

 

Despite differences of opinion, most critics will agree about two things.  First, that the movie is a feast to the eyes and to the ears, a tour de force. It is shot in a stylized black and white, offering some of the most gorgeous images to be seen in an American film, and the sounds again are orchestrated by maestro Wlater Murch.

 

Second, and more importantly, the film features a career-making performance by a young, gorgeous actor,  Alden Ehrenreich, who’s likely to become a leading Hollywood actor.  Physically Ehrenreich is a cross between the young Leonardo DiCaprio (around the time of “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” which was also a story of two brothers), James Dean in “East of Eden” (another siblings melodrama) and also Michael Pitt, specifically in the way he was shot by Bertolucci in “The Dreamers.” Like those actors, Ehrendreich displays an overt erotic appeal and dramatic chops (good voice) that few thespians of his age possess today.

 

Though the narrative per se is naïve and old-fashioned, only a mature artist could have made “Tetro,” a film that defies easy categorization.  My fear is that it will be misunderstood as a small-scale, intimate, realistic family melodrama about two separated brothers (played by Vincent Gallo and Ehrendreich), who are alienated from each others as well as from themselves.  Nothing is farther from the truth: The budget may be small, and the film may be personal, but the scale and production values of “Tetro” are those of an epic, not unlike Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita”, “81/2,” “Ginger and Fred,” or “And The Ship Sails on.”

 

What Coppola has done is far more ambitious that rehashing American plays of the 1940s and 1950s be they by O’Neill, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, or William Inge.  Instead, Coppola has taken the conventional format of a siblings melodrama and has used it as a loose frame to comment on issues that have preoccupied his work for decades, such as the limits of narrative storytelling, authorship and the public, the director as auteur and author, family issues like intergenerational strife of fathers and sons, rivalry between brothers, male bonding and camaraderie.

 

Narratively simple but textually dense, “Tetro” is a surreal meditation, a film-spectacle that channels seminal works and admired directors of world cinema, from Michael Powell and Emir Pressburger in the 1940s, Bergman and especially Fellini of the 1950s, Godard in the 1960s, Bunuel and Fassbinder in the 1970s, and Pedro Almodovar over the past two decades.  The movie is so rich in allusions and references to the world of art (novels, plays, paintings, opera, dance) that it may take more than one viewings to  absorb all of them.

 

Though very different in style, “Tetro” is like a freewheeling Godardian essay-spectacle, a loose stream of consciousness in which characters step in and out of realism and enter into a surreal domain, which is then magnified by Coppola’s mise-en-scene, art design, visual style, lighting, and sounds. 

 

It’s impossible to disregard how personal a work “Tetro” is for Coppola as writer-director-auteur.  Take these key sentences as examples.  At one point, Bennie charges Tetro with betraying his calling as a writer: “How do you walk away from your work?  Doesn’t it follow you?” A line which also describes Coppola’s calling as a filmmaker.  Later on, Miranda says, “Tetro is like a genius. But without enough accomplishments.”  Coppola is (or was) a genius: He’s the only American filmmaker to have directed four masterpieces in a row: “The Godfather,” “The Godfather, Part II,” “The Conversation,” and “Apocalypse Now,” but all of these works were made thrity years ago.  At one point, you cease to be a genius because you don’t have enough accomplishments.

 

Coppola does tell a story that relies heavily on the paradigm of the outsider and his inevitable impact on one family and community, and turning points in a plot that are conveyed in flashbacks (shot in hot and vivid colors of red, yellow, and green that would make Minnelli proud).

 

In the first, gorgeous scene, a young, handsome hut, dressed in a white uniform arrives at the house of Tetro (Gallo) and his loving and loyal girlfriend Miranda (Maribel Verdu).   Barley 18, he claims to be working as a waiter on a cruise ship, which is in town due to some mechnical problems.   Out of courtesy, but without much excitement, Bennie is permitted to stay for a few days at his brother’s house, crashing on the living room sofa.

 

His older brother all but ignores him—he is introduced as a friend, not brother–but his kind woman shows interest in him and his problems, and for a while you think an erotic liaison might develop between Bennie and Miranda, who stares at him as a woman and performs for him in a tight dress.

 

It turns out that Angel/Tetro and Bennie are half brothers, sharing the same father but different mothers.  Both are still attached to their mothers, though Tetro’s died in an accident, while Bennie’s has been in coma for nine years. 

 

Gradually, we get to know the family through flashbacks.  We learn that Tetro (Angel) has left Bennie years back, promising to come back and get him.  He never did and the youngster still carries that old letter—and a chip on his shoulder.  We also learn how Miranda met Tetro while he was in an asylum where she worked as a nurse.

 

Snooping around, Bennie finds suitcases with all kinds of invaluable documents, including a draft of an incomplete manuscript, written in military codes that need to be deciphered.  Covered in plastic, the suitcases are placed on top of a closet and predictably contain skeletons, family secrets about lineage, betrayals, and illegitimate children, such as those we have seen in countless melodramas of the 1950s by Douglas Sirk, Minnelli, and Nicholas Ray.

 

Heavy-duty Freudian psychology defines the multi-generational family, headed by a patriarchal genius, a tyrannical musician-father named Carlo (Brandauer), his inferior brother, Uncle Alfie (also played by Brandauer), their son Angelo/Tetro and Bennie, and there are also grandsons whose identity cannot be disclosed here.  Accordingly, the film is replete with phallic objects, be they cans, batons, guns, crutches, microphones, statues, torches, and even axes.

 

On another level, “Tetro” is a classic coming of age saga not just of Bennie, the innocent, upbeat, virginal brother, but also of the bitter, angry, volatile Tetro, who has never come to terms with his past and its haunting effect on the present.  The orgy scene in which Bennie loses his virginity with the help of two women in a motel is a cross between Fellini’s “Dolce Vita” and Almodovar’s and Cuaron’s sex farces.

 

What makes “Tetro” a must-see for cineastes is the iconic meanings of the actors and the way they are used by Coppola as a magician-author-director, who approaches “Tetro” like a mulit-ring circus, yet another link to Fellini’s oeuvre.  Is it possible to observe Bennie without reflecting on Leonardo DiCaprio’s career, from the early days in movies like “This Boy’s Life” and “What’s Eating Gilbert Grave”?  Is it possible to watch Carmen Maura, who plays an influential literary critic named “Alone,” without thinking of her work in Almodovar’s farces (“Women on the Verge of Nervous Breakdown”?  Wearing dark glasses and elegantly clad in black, she resembles Anouk Aimee’s character in Fellini’s “81/2.” 

 

Is it possible to listen to Klaus Maria Brandauer without thinking of his German descent and his seminal part in “Mephisto”?  Is it possible to listen to Maribel Verdu without recalling fondly her acting in Alfonso Cuaron’s “Y Tu Mama Tambien” (in some scenes, she looks like Coppola’s sister, Talia Shire).

 

If the style is largely surreal, the tone is comedic, and the approach to the narrative ironic. Among others things, Coppola offers commentary on the nature of mythic tales about love, familial and otherwise, the impossibility of having a shapely structure with a clear beginning, middle and a satisfying closure by way of happy ending.

 

Space doesn’t permit me to dwell on the ultra-rich production, in which almost every scene is playful, allusive and self-reflexive, with references to countless movies (“The Red Shoes,” Tales of Hoffman”), plays (“Faust”), operas (Bellini’s “Norma,” Rigoletto”), and ballets, which are abruptly inserted, or deliberately not smoothly integrated, into the main story line.  If the family scenes and endless accidents, bickering and fights feel like intrusions into the spectacle, they are meant to be.

 

Cast

 

Tetro –  Vincent Gallo
Bennie – Alden Ehrenreich
Miranda –Maribel Verdu
Carlo/Alfie –Klaus Maria Brandauer
Alone –Carmen Maura
Jose – Rodrigo De La Serna
Josefina – Leticia Bredice
Abelardo – Mike Amigorena
Maria Luisa – Sofia Castiglione
Ana –Erica Rivas

Credits

 

An  American Zoetrope production.

Produced by Francis Ford Coppola.

Executive producers, Anahid Nazarian, Fred Roos.

Directed, written by Coppola.
Camera (B&W/color, widescreen), Mihai Malaimare Jr..

Editor, Walter Murch.

Music, Osvaldo Golijov.

Production designer, Sebastian Orgambide; set decorator, Paulina Lopez Meyer.

Costume designer, Cecilia Monti.

Sound (Dolby), Vicente D’Elia; re-recording mixer, Murch.

Associate producer, Masa Tsuyuki.

Assistant director, Juan Pablo Laplace.

Second unit director, Roman Coppola.

Casting, Walter Rippel.

 

Running time: 125 Minutes