Review of Francis Ford Coppola's 'Tetro'

By John Anderson
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, June 19, 2009

Based on the first original screenplay he's written since "The Conversation" (1974), Francis Ford Coppola has created a movie that aspires to the grand opera -- and probably should be considered successful, given how often grand opera is confusing, hysterical and/or illogical, and with enough plotlines to hang itself. No one cares that "Tosca" is a bloody mess, of course, because it has a score by Puccini. "Tetro" doesn't.

What does it have? An overheated emotional engine. A story about patriarchy, frustrated artistic ambition and, ultimately, self-absorption. All of which are aided and abetted by the presence of Vincent Gallo, an actor with the ability to render drama into farce -- and comedy into God knows what. In a bit of stunt casting on Coppola's part, the resolutely eccentric Gallo plays the title character, a tortured writer who's given up on himself and is living in the Italianate section of Buenos Aires. "He's like a genius, without a lot of accomplishments," says his long-suffering yet chronically upbeat girlfriend, Miranda (Maribel Verdú, of "Pan's Labyrinth"), a dancer and doctor who met Tetro in the asylum where she worked. Tetro is never going to be what one would describe as happy, but he seems content enough when we meet him, stewing in his own frustrated juices among the Argentine demimonde. Predictably enough, he reacts harshly to the unexpected arrival of his young brother, Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich), who wants to know why Tetro abandoned him, and why he hasn't realized his potential.

Every indication is that Bennie is on a fool's errand. Neither Tetro nor his brother, whose editing will lift Tetro's work to public acclaim, is plausible as a great writer -- there's nothing introspective or even intelligent about them. But Coppola's efforts here are all about elaborate gestures, exalted feeling and high-decibel angst. Tetro and Bennie have different mothers but are both sons of the world-renowned conductor and world-class egomaniac Carlo Tetrocini (Klaus Maria Brandauer), who delivers to his elder son the movie's most memorable line: "There's room for only one genius in this family." Tetro has fled his father, his country and his art. His brother is a reminder of all he left behind. Their remembered relationship with their father is Gothic. Unlike certain Coppola clans of the past, this one isn't killing each other. But it's a thought.

The film looks fantastic, the HD black-and-white that connotes the present (color identifies the past) being a glory of moody contrasts and haunted high-resolution. Now that Coppola has transitioned from onetime studio lion to scrappy indie filmmaker, it also should be noted that "Tetro" is a vast improvement over his last opus, "Youth Without Youth," although the 70-year-old director commits the same mortal sin as any 22-year-old would-be auteur: He doesn't have enough story to support his characters' anxieties. Gallo recites lines, lines that really should be played for laughs, as if he were a doctor delivering a cancer diagnosis. There's a disconnect between the feverish emotion and its cause: Carlo's legacy, other than his music, is one profoundly dysfunctional family, but it hardly justifies all the interpretive dancing being performed by our trusty cast. The great Spanish actress Carmen Maura is the one performer with a clue, playing the mysterious Argentine critic Alone (as in "I vant to be . . . ') for maximum campiness. But it's too little -- as is the incidental music scored by the great Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov, or the splendid cinematography of Mihai Malaimare Jr. "Tetro" has no internal tension -- you can't bring yourself to care about the characters because there's no justification for their suffering. In other words, it should have been a comedy.

Tetro (127 minutes at Landmark E Street Theatre) is not rated.

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