Although its grand themes seem to mark it out as a something like a career-capping retrospective, Tetro is less interesting as a personal statement about the difficulties of coming to terms with one’s past, the vagaries of familial interaction, and the intersection of life and art, than as an example of a personal, exploratory mode of filmmaking. The second of director Francis Ford Coppola’s self-financed projects (following his underrated 2007 offering Youth Without Youth) and his first original screenplay since 1974’s The Conversation, Tetro feels supremely like the work of a director making exactly the film he wants. Creating his own slightly surreal, self-contained world, supplementing the black-and-white HD photography with sequences which not only break out in color but switch up the aspect ratio as well, introducing dance numbers and plot absurdities with an equal lack of self-consciousness, Coppola is not only utterly in control of his medium, but fully willing to enrich his basic chops with an appealing and lightly worn experimentalism. It’s a fascinating ride.
Nominally set in Buenos Aires’s handsome La Boca neighborhood (though despite some lovely shots of the quarter, it seems more a world unraveling in the director’s head than any real locale), the film begins with the arrival of 17-year-old Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich) at the apartment of his half-brother Tetro (Vincent Gallo) and his wife Miranda (Maribel Verdú). Having fled New York years ago, both to get away from his overbearing, orchestra conductor father and to launch a literary career, Tetro set up shop in Buenos Aires where, following an initial stab at writing a novel, he suffered a mental breakdown and, after recovering, vowed to completely divorce himself from his former life. So when Bennie shows up, having himself fled a stint in the military, Tetro is somewhat less than enthusiastic in his reception.
Staying with the couple for what turns into an extended trip, Bennie becomes acquainted with the pair’s semi-bohemian milieu while chipping away at his brother’s stern façade. As played by Gallo, Tetro is all glaring eyes and angry outbursts, but this choleric demeanor hides a latent tenderness toward Bennie that only occasionally surfaces. Hoping to understand his brother better, the latter begins poking around the apartment, eventually uncovering Tetro’s manuscript. Written in reverse lettering and requiring a mirror to read (with the indecipherable handwriting and conspicuous inkblots, the pages recalls the work of Argentinean visual artist Léon Ferrari), Tetro’s novel comes off as thinly disguised autobiography, an attempt for the writer to negotiate the past familial connections he now wants nothing to do with. Eventually both art and life come to a head, as Bennie transcribes and adapts the manuscript, turning his brother’s work into a critically lauded play whose public revelations prompt Tetro to disclose the final and most insidious of family secrets.
By the end the film, the plotting has achieved an impressive, if slightly overcooked, degree of complexity. But Coppola is in no rush to force his conclusion. Having crafted, along with DP Mihai Malaimare Jr., a swooningly lovely digital palate in ultra-crisp black-and-white, finely tuned to shadow and the play of light across, for example, a nearly deserted nighttime street, the director lingers on his unhurried, largely static framings, only cutting in for a closer look after the viewer has had plenty of time to take in the composition. In fact, for a work as generously full as Tetro, the whole film unwinds according to its own measured, utterly coherent time-logic, giving due weight to each lovingly crafted aside and creating an insular dream-like atmosphere. The film abounds in one-off set pieces that testify to the sheer pleasure of invention with which Coppola invests his picture. In one sequence, a friend of Tetro and Miranda’s stages a free-verse transvestite production of Faust which turns into a delightfully bawdy burlesque. Later, in a color segment that unfolds as imagined flashback, Tetro’s father steals his girlfriend from him, the theft turning on the young woman’s enactment of a sharply choreographed dance that she performs at the older man’s behest.
But for the all film’s whimsical asides, Coppola knows when to cut away before things get too ponderous. So a lovely nighttime dog walk is soon interrupted by a near-fatal accident and a hot tub orgy gives way to panic as a character suddenly disappears and the revels stop short. In the end, the filmmaker strikes the right balance between a digressive laxity and the demands of his complex and increasingly central narrative. For the film’s climax, Coppola concocts a two-tiered set piece that unfolds against the backdrop of a theatrical festival and whose staging neatly mirrors the film’s thematic progression. As actors and dancers enact Tetro and Bennie’s play on an indoor stage, the two brothers stand outside the festival hall, playing out the conclusion to their own familial drama, a drama which, coincidentally, forms the raw material of the fictional work. Here, form and content come together as surely as life and art, giving visible shape to Coppola’s ambivalent attitude toward the ability of fiction to help us understand our own lived past.
If we tend to place too much emphasis in our culture on individual achievement and subscribe too readily to the romantic notion of art as a means of personal expression, then it’s at moments like these that such attitudes seem entirely justified. In the end, Coppola might not really have too much to say, but in his highly individuated telling, his striking visual conception and the joyous display of his undiminished powers of invention, the director has created a film that is not only among the more intriguing works of the recent cinema, but despite its often dour subject matter, one of the most outright joyous as well.