Tetro is Francis Ford Coppola’s latest film and first screenplay since The Conversation 35 years ago. It tells the story of two half-brothers from an Italian American family torn apart by tragedy and turbulent family secrets.
Bennie, the youngest, is a waiter on a cruise liner. He tracks down his brother Angelo in Buenos Aires when his ship docks for repairs. He discovers Angelo has changed his name to Tetro (from their family name, Tetrocini) and quickly comes up against his refusal to talk about the past or their father, a famous and domineering symphonic conductor, referred to by both as “The Great One”.
Tetro (played perfectly by Vincent Gallo) is a damaged and struggling writer who has traded in his dreams for a brooding cynicism. Now living an aimless, bohemian life with girlfriend Miranda (played beautifully by Maribel Verdu), we learn that he left his family in New York years earlier on a writing sabbatical from which he never returned, despite a promise to his brother that he would return for him. During a brief opening up, Tetro remarks, “In our family, love is a quick stab in the heart.”
Bennie, taken under the wing of Miranda, is at a loss and finds his brother’s hidden writings, soon deciphering the cryptic pages with the help of a mirror. He begins to piece together his brother’s secrets, secrets which will turn out to be as much about his own life as Tetro’s.
The second half of the film takes an unexpected, almost absurdist, turn when Bennie decides to adapt his brother’s autobiographical writings into a stage play that he hopes will revive his brother’s reputation. His motivations aren’t completely believable, but as the drama unfolds on stage at the prestigious Patagonia Festival, the real-life drama is unravelling and will throw Bennie and Tetro together in unexpected ways.
Tetro is shot beautifully in crisp, high-definition monochrome, interrupted only by colour vignettes of theatrical scenes, dream sequences and haunting flashbacks. But what promises to be a quirky and charming story begins to steadily lose itself, in part due to the film’s slow pacing and the script’s movement into various, sometimes conflicting, genres.
Yet there are some stunningly moving scenes, as well as some off-beat and humorous moments, and Coppola’s visual artistry and trademark play with light and shadow (courtesy of cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr) remind us of whose company we are in.
Ostensibly a film about betrayal, love, renewal and forgiveness, Tetro is a far step away from Coppola’s previous film, Youth Without Youth, which felt frustratingly pretentious. Although the plot doesn’t consistently engage, Tetro is a film that delivers Coppola’s ever-masterful flair and skill for cinematic expression, while giving us some moments to surely remember.
A quietly evocative film
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