Something’s wrong when a Francis Coppola movie inspires equal dread and anticipation. Coppola doesn’t just defy popular appeal, he snubs it. His Tetro is not about the discovery of Tetracycline antibiotics—and that’s the problem. Coppola creeps around his true subject: masculine camaraderie as learned through psychic and genetic history (c.f. his best films, The Godfather Trilogy, Gardens of Stone, The Rainmaker and the “boy movies” The Outsiders and Rumble Fish). Instead, Tetro is a meandering family saga where young Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich) finds estranged brother (Vincent Gallo) hiding out in Argentina, shortening the family name Tetrocini. He’s supposedly on “a writing sabbatical” but actually is rebelling against his intimidating patriarch (Klaus Maria Brandauer, finally owning up to his Brando resemblance).
If this seems simple and relatable, Coppola makes it obvious—yet remote. (Blame Oedipus Rex for the spoiler.) He encourages Bennie and Tetro to Method-act—not like Kazan’s East of Eden but like Matt Dillon and Mickey Rourke in Rumble Fish, turning blood rivalry into artistic competitiveness.
(Gallo previously aced this dilemma in Robert Kramer’s Doc’s Kingdom.) Both Tetrocini siblings attempt writing theater, which allows Coppola to whip-up theatrical tangents, including homages to Michael Powell at his most alienating and eccentric (The Tales of Hoffman clips startle the serene B&W visual scheme).
Coppola now shoots on High-Definition digital video, and his 30-year-old cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. (who also shot Coppola’s Youth Without Youth) faithfully preserves video’s almost tactile distinction from photochemical celluloid. The effect is striking but, again, remote—which may explain some critics using this oddity to crown Coppola the father of the mumblecore movement. They overlook how Julian Hirsch (Godard’s and Téchiné’s great director of photographer) already makes digital and celluloid effects compatible. This overrates Coppola’s aestheticism while most moviegoers rightly ignore Coppola’s artsiness for the intimacy and emotion of his best films. Tetro’s rehashed family wrangles indicate Coppola knows what’s important, yet can’t stop alienating the audience’s affection.
Only in our perverse indie era could this be considered a virtue. Maybe some concern about extending his legacy to his filmmaking offspring explains Coppola’s maddening method. “My father was a failure,” Tetro whines. “A lover without love, a poet without poetry.” Clearly, Coppola needs to re-read O’Neill and stop trying to be Soderbergh.
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Runtime: 127 min.
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