Lighten up, Francis: Tetro **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on  June 27, 2009)

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ORMAN “Well, you see Willard… Every man has got a breaking point. You and I have. Walter Kurtz has reached his.And very obviously, he has gone insane.” 

WILLARD “Yes sir, very much so sir. Obviously insane.” 

-from Apocalypse Now

It’s official now. With his latest film, Tetro, a mad fever dream of a family angst drama that plays out like a telenovela on acid, Francis Ford Coppola has become Colonel Kurtz.

I don’t really mean to insinuate that the venerable 70-year old director has literally gone completely around the bend in his new film; but as an artist, it signals that he has come full circle-in a sort of insane fashion. Back in 1963, under the auspices of the famously “no-budget” producer Roger Corman, a then 24-year old Coppola wrote and directed a B & W horror cheapie called Dementia 13.

The story revolved around a twisted family with dark secrets. It’s been a while since I’ve screened it, but I seem to remember one of the family members creeping about the estate wielding an axe. While it’s not ostensibly “horror”, one could peg Tetro as a B & W film revolving around a twisted family with dark secrets; and, oddly enough, there is a climactic scene where one of the family members creeps about an estate-wielding an axe.

For the setup of this (possibly) very personal story, Coppola utilizes some of his own emotional leftovers to cook up a Tennessee Williams meets Douglas Sirk-worthy family stew (with just a hint of balletic Powell and Pressburger opera tossed in for flavoring). Tetro (Vincent Gallo) is an ex-pat living in Buenos Aires with his dancer girlfriend Miranda (Mirabel Verdu), who is an Argentine native.

Tetro is a troubled soul; a gifted but unpublished writer-poet with a history of mental breakdowns who has willfully estranged himself from his family (for complex reasons that are unraveled in very sudsy fashion). He is quite chagrined when an unwelcomed boulder comes smashing through this wall of self-imposed exile in the form of his younger brother Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich), who shows up on his doorstep one day. Bennie, a cruise ship worker whose boat “happens” to be in port, has not seen his big brother since he was knee high to a grasshopper, and is eager to reestablish contact.

In fact, Bennie idolizes Tetro; it is that unique mixture of envy and romanticized esteem that younger family members hold for the older siblings who are first in line to declare independence from parental restraints and strike out into the coveted world of adult “freedom” (we all know how soon that illusion gets shattered…heh).

Tetro, however, is not eager to reciprocate. Not only does he make it clear that Bennie is not welcome to stay any longer than necessary, but he refuses to refer to him as a relative when introducing him to the locals. Undaunted, Bennie remains hell-bent to reconnect, and soon fate and circumstance serve to prolong his visit to Buenos Aires, setting off a chain of events that eventually forces both brothers to come to terms with their shared “Daddy issues”. Klaus Maria Brandauer chews major scenery as their narcissistic father, who is a world-famous symphony conductor… and world-class prick.

Coppola’s films have generally vacillated between the Big Theme (The Godfather, The Conversation, Apocalypse Now, Gardens of Stone) and the intimate character study (The Rain People, One From the Heart, Rumble Fish, Peggy Sue Got Married). I have to admit to being more partial to his Big Theme films. As I conjectured earlier, this is “possibly” an extremely personal film; I’m no psychiatrist, but Coppola’s dad, Carmine, is a composer/conductor (I’m just saying).

At any rate, this definitely qualifies as a “personal” work on some level; it virtually screams at you from the passionate, high drama of the piece. It goes without saying that “family” is a recurring theme in his work as well; so in that respect, you could say that Tetro is a return to form. So is that a good thing in this case?

I was with Coppola for the first half or so of the movie. Gallo delivers an explosive performance; I think it’s his finest work to date. The charismatic Verdu is very effective inhabiting a character who is at once earthy, sensuous and saintly. Newcomer Ehrenreich admirably holds his own with his more seasoned co-stars. The problem I have is with the film’s over-the-top third act. Even accounting for Coppola’s (literally) operatic construct that leads up to the jaw-dropping finale, it’s all a bit too…too (if you know what I’m saying). Maybe it’s me; if you enjoy that sort of thing, perhaps you’ll be more forgiving.

One cannot deny the visual artistry on display. Even when he lost me with the story, Coppola’s mastery of the medium kept my eyes riveted to the screen. So he did his job, after all. He’s been doing it for 50 years-so I’ll let him off the hook…for old time’s sake.

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