Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

"Aesthetically, it is a joy from start to finish."

Like the moth seen fluttering around a light bulb at the beginning of Francis Ford Coppola's Tetro, Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich) arrives in the night, drawn towards something that he does not fully understand, and that may, for all its attractions, be his tragic undoing. Bennie's 18th birthday is not for a few days, but he has absconded from military school and lied about his age to get a job as a waiter on a cruise liner – and now that his ship is grounded in Buenos Aires with engine trouble, he has come looking for Angelo, the beloved older brother who left him and the family in New York nearly a decade ago for a writing sabbatical from which he was never to return.

Angelo's de facto wife Miranda (Maribel Verdú) greets Bennie warmly as family ("I'm your sister-in-law – well sort of") – but Angelo himself (Vincent Gallo), finally emerging on crutches from his bedroom, is far less welcoming. Now going by the name Tetro, he has turned his back on his writing, his family, his past, and even his own identity, and regards Bennie as an unpleasant reminder of all that he has been trying to forget.

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After a stint at a mental institution where he met Miranda (who is a therapist), Tetro now operates the spotlight in a local theatre – but when he proves reluctant to cast any light on his own family history, Bennie begins secretly transcribing the scrawled manuscript of an autobiographical play that he finds hidden in his brother's suitcase - a play that half-tells and half-conceals the truth about their domineering father Carlo (Klaus Maria Brandauer) and his monstrously all-consuming sense of rivalry towards Uncle Alfie (also Brandauer) and everyone else. Desperate to write his own ending to Tetro's unfinished play and to find the success that has always evaded his brother, Bennie risks getting burnt by the light of truth.

"It's gonna be ok - we're family." If the last line of Tetro sounds reassuring, everything that has preceded it, both in the film itself and in Coppola's past filmography, tells otherwise. After all, Coppola's previous 'family' films were The Godfather (1972) and Rumble Fish (1983). The latter is expressly evoked by Tetro's theme of brotherly love and its mixing of black and white with occasional splashes of colour – but Tetro is more a genetic mutation than a carbon-copy clone of what has come before.

When Bennie is first seen wandering in the shadowy streets of La Boca in search of his lost family history, he passes a banner that reads, "Wind sweeps the road – you can't go back". Sure enough, even if Coppola has opted for old-fashioned monochrome visuals, expressionist lighting and a setting in a run-down neighbourhood described by one character as being "in the Stone Ages", the 'classical' look that these lend to his film is carefully offset by the appearance of mobile phones, laptop computers and other signifiers of modernity, while all that 'timelessly' elegant chiaroscuro imagery was actually shot on digital cameras.

This may be the first screenplay that Coppola has written himself since The Conversation (1974), but as Tetro puts it, "Who wants a conversation?". Here Coppola goes back to his cinematic glory days only to see how they illuminate a (different) present and future – and the previous generation is replaced (as it always is) by a new one, even if a certain family resemblance makes the lineage and legacy apparent.

Given that Coppola's own father and uncle were, like Tetro's, both musicians, and that he too grew up with one brother and one sister, it is tempting to regard this film as autobiographical. Tempting, but also infuriating - for Tetro's 'autobiographical' play within the film is a mise en abyme that reflects precisely upon how 'truth' transformed into art undergoes creative distortion and is easily misinterpreted. Presenting Tetro at Cannes, Coppola himself would only tell the assembled press, "Nothing in this movie ever really happened, but it's all true" - in words chosen carefully to be a provocative begging of their own question.

The story here may have been influenced by some aspects of Coppola's personal history, but it is equally inspired by opera, tragedy, and Powell and Pressburger's operatic The Tales Of Hoffmann (1951), scenes from which are excerpted in the film as part of the shared cinema-going memory from Bennie and Tetro's youth, and then re-enacted within their play as an artful analogue for Tetro's harrowing real-life experiences and disgust with his father. What is important here is not the distinction between art and life, but rather the complex way in which these two categories become intertwined – which might provide some excuse for the film's overwrought, even operatic, coda, as Bennie finally assumes his full and proper role in a family melodrama of his father's making.

Tetro is an Oedipal mystery of identity, driven by Bennie's desire to know the truth about who he is and where he comes from, and Tetro's equal desire to keep that truth buried. Aesthetically, it is a joy from start to finish, with DP Mihai Malaimare Jr evidently taking as much pleasure in the use of light and shadow as Tetro does at the theatre where he works. The performances, too, are exemplary, with Ehrenreich's youthful enthusiasm playing off perfectly against Gallo's haunted intensity – and Verdú making Miranda generous to a fault, but never quite sure whether to play mother, lover or co-conspirator to her two lost boys.

Only in the satirical scenes that involve the celebrity critic 'Alone' (Carmen Maura), and in the film's ridiculously baroque climax, does Tetro show signs of limping, but for the most part it marks Coppola once again at the very top of his game – and there are enough nuances, ellipses and ambiguities here to make every return visit reveal something different and new. So you can go back, after all.

Reviewed on: 24 Jun 2010
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Tetro packshot
Two reunited brothers consider their family's past.
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Director: Francis Ford Coppola

Writer: Francis Ford Coppola

Starring: Vincent Gallo, Maribel Verdú, Alden Ehrenreich, Klaus Maria Brandauer, Carmen Maura, Rodrigo De La Serna, Leticia Brédice, Mike Amigorena, Sofía Castiglione, Francesca De Sapio

Year: 2009

Runtime: 127 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US, Italy, Spain, Argentina


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If you like this, try:

Rumble Fish
The Tales Of Hoffmann