Coppola’s ‘Tetro’ shows again how his reach exceeds his grasp

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Thursday, June 18, 2009 6:04pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

Francis Ford Coppola, the ­Oscar-winning onetime godfather of American moviemaking, has lately returned to film after a long layoff.

His 2007 “Youth Without Youth” was a peculiar but handsome re-entry, and “Tetro” is his very personal new effort. Coppola wrote the original screenplay for this drama about family, which is set in Buenos Aires.

Newcomer Alden Ehrenreich plays Bennie, an 18-year-old who abruptly arrives at the apartment of his long-lost brother Tetro (Vincent Gallo) in Argentina. Tetro left home years earlier and is some kind of brooding, hostile, unproductive writer. Except he doesn’t seem to have written anything.

Tetro lives with Miranda (Maribel Verdu, from “Y Tu Mama Tambien”), who’s about as sunny as he is gloomy. At first Tetro’s hostility toward Bennie is mystifying, but as the days go by he begins to resemble a human.

Coppola layers this in with information about their father (Klaus Maria Brandauer), a famous orchestra conductor and a world-class swine. His behavior has had a huge impact on the boys.

The digitally shot black-and-white photography is lovely, and the Buenos Aires setting (which Coppola thankfully uses as a backdrop, not a postcard) is fresh.

I also enjoyed the ease of the storytelling. You can sense that no committee chewed over this material, that nobody aimed it at any particular demographic. Coppola’s telling it simply because he has a mind to.

Also, Coppola actually gets a disciplined performance from wild-man actor Gallo, which ought to count for something.

But, sad to report, the movie begins to jump its tracks about halfway through. Coppola has always been a filmmaker whose reach exceeded his grasp, and here he is reaching wildly in a different directions: psychoanalytic family melodrama, symbolic theatrical metaphor — and there is surely some reason both brothers break a leg during the course of the movie.

This is a pretentious film, in other words. Even worse, it depends on characters doing things that stretch credulity, especially in the final 20 minutes or so.

Does this make the movie unwatchable? Not at all. Coppola’s pretensions are linked with his fluid skills as a filmmaker (recall a little Coppola picture called “Apocalypse Now” for a similar experience). I suspect “Tetro” would go down even easier if you had a bottle of Coppola wine at the ready. The darned thing is interesting, whatever its craziness.

“Tetro” 1/2

The new one by movie godfather Francis Coppola, about a teenager who goes to Buenos Aires to establish a relationship with his bitter, long-lost brother (Vincent Gallo). The movie is pretentious and pretty unbelievable, although Coppola’s sheer moviemaking skills make it work, at least for a while.

Rated: Not rated; probably PG-13 for subject matter

Showing: Harvard Exit

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