Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Movie Review: Tetro

Tetro *** ½
Directed By: Francis Ford Coppola.
Written By: Francis Ford Coppola.
Starring: Vincent Gallo (Tetro), Maribel Verdú (Miranda), Alden Ehrenreich (Bennie), Klaus Maria Brandauer (Carlo), Carmen Maura (Alone), Rodrigo De la Serna (Jose), Leticia Brédice (Josefina), Mike Amigorena (Abelardo), Sofía Castiglione (Maria Luisa), Francesca De Sapio (Amalia).

You have to admire Francis Ford Coppola. So many filmmakers talk about doing smaller, more personal movies, but so few actually put their money where their mouth is and do it. His friend George Lucas has been saying that for more than 20 years, but all he keeps delivering is more Star Wars, and producing work on Indiana Jones. But after more than a decade off from making films, Coppola has returned with two smaller films, which appear to be passion projects for him. I know a lot of people did not appreciate Youth Without Youth (2007), his first film back, but I quite liked it. His new film, Tetro, is even better.

The movie centers on a pair of brothers, who share a father and not much else in common. 10 years ago, Angelo (Vincent Gallo) left on what was supposed to be a writing sabbatical, and promised his younger brother Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich) that he would return for him - but never did. Now Bennie is 18, and has tracked his brother down in Argentina. Bennie has spent all the intervening years idolizing his (much) older brother, but when he shows up at his house, the welcome is anything but warm. Angelo, who now refuses to answer to that name and goes simply by Tetro, tells him he does not want anything to do with any of his family. The Angelo he knew is dead. But Miranda (Maribel Verdu) insists that they let Bennie stay with them, and Tetro eventually agrees. Tetro left all those years ago to try and outrun the car accident that caused his mother’s death (Tetro was driving the car), and to get out of the influence of his famous father, Carlo (Klaus Maria Brandauer).Carlo is a famous conductor, who resented other people in his family who had ambition. When Angelo informed him he wanted to make his living as a writer, his father tells him that in order to do that, he would have to be a genius - and there is only room in this family for one genius.

Tetro did write after he left, but he never shared his work with anyone. Bennie stumbles across a suitcase full of his writing. He decides to finish the play that Tetro started without telling him. He submits the play to a famous festival run by a critic known only as Alone (Carmen Maura) - a character straight out of Fellini.

For two hours, Coppola weaves his story, gradually revealing the secrets of Tetro and Bennie’s family. You could, if you were so inclined, complain about the artificiality of the story, the operatic emotions, and the filmmaking. But Coppola is an intelligent filmmaker. He knows all of this, so this is not a flaw in the film, but a deliberate choice. Coppola references the brilliant Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger film The Tales of Hoffman, and Coppola echoes that films over the top exuberance in scenes. Most of the movie is shot in glorious black and white, but the flashbacks with Carlo and the dance sequences, which express the emotions behind the story, are shot in color. The movie comes gloriously, artistically alive.

The performances play a key role in making the movie work as well as it does. The brilliant filmmaking by Coppola would all be for naught had the actors not sold they hell out of their characters. Carmen Maura (a veteran of Pedro Almodovar films) is gloriously vain and superficial as Alone. She could have easily stepped right out of La Dolce Vita, and Maura sells her character perfectly. Maribel Verdu (Y Tu Mama Tambien and Pan’s Labyrinth) is touching vulnerable, supportive and tough as Miranda, the only person who Tetro allows to contradict him. Perhaps he knows that if he doesn’t allow her to speak her mind, then he’ll have no one left. Newcomer Alden Ehrenreich, who looks and sounds like Leonardo DiCaprio’s younger brother, is just about perfect as the hungry young man searching for answers - both talented beyond his years, and also a little too naïve. But the really stunning performance is by Vincent Gallo. Gallo is not an actor who blends into the background. With his thin, angular face, wild eyes, shock of black hair and nasally voice, you notice him every time he is on screen. He could easily have a career like Christopher Walken, playing one crazed villain after another, but that holds no interest for Gallo. He is choosy about the roles he takes. Tetro gives him a great role. He first stalks onto the screen on crutches (pretty much everyone in the film gets hit by a car at some point), and alternates in the movie between insane, comedic and heartfelt - and he pulls them all off brilliantly. I hope that Gallo acts more in the future - and maybe even gets back to directing. Hiss Buffalo 66 was a wonderful debut, and even the much reviled The Brown Bunny was an interesting failure. The man is insanely talented.

As is Francis Ford Coppola. In the 1970s, he made four the best films in American history with the first two Godfather films, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now, but some time since then, he lost some of that genius. In the three decades since, he has made some terrible films, some bad films, some good films and even some great films, but nothing that approaches that level of greatness again. Tetro still does not achieve that level of greatness. But it is a very good one, a personal film that shows that the ambitious filmmaker that Coppola once was has not completely left him. I do not know if he’ll ever be able to achieve that level of greatness again, but with Tetro, for the first time in years, I think that it’s at least possible.

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