10th Belfast Film Festival review
The word had been going around that Tetro is Francis Ford Coppola’s most personal film yet, and with it being his first original screenplay since The Conversation, expectations for a return to form for one of America’s greatest modern filmmakers were inevitably high. In the event, while the storyline turns out to be almost pure fiction, the sentiments behind them have a definite ring of truth about them and are clearly drawn from personal experience. As for whether Tetro marks a return to form for a director whose best work seems far behind him, the answer happily is a resounding yes.
What comes through with a sense of authenticity and a personal sense of involvement is the relationship between a young man and his deep admiration for an older brother who he wants to emulate in every way. Only seventeen years-old, Bennie Tetrocini (Alden Ehrenreich) has gone against his family wishes to enter military school, running away and signing up to work as a waiter on a cruise ship. The ship has brought him to Buenos Aires, and while he waits on a repair to be carried out, Bennie decides to visit the person who has inspired him to travel and explore the world in his own way – his brother Angelo (Vincent Gallo). Angelo isn’t happy to see his kid brother – he’s left that life long behind him after a series of disputes and family difficulties, vowing never to see any of them ever again. Now living in the La Boca district with a beautiful Spanish woman, Miranda (Maribel Verdú), and going only by the name of Tetro, he has however also abandoned many of the principles that Bennie once admired him for, including his ambition to be a great writer. Gradually reforming a relationship with his brother, albeit very tentatively and seemingly only on the basis of a temporary friendship while he waits for his ship to sail, Bennie finds some of his brother’s old writings and is determined to see them reach a wider audience and achieve the acclaim he thinks they deserve.
Into this relationship, particularly on the side of Bennie, Coppola considers the sense of wide-eyed admiration for a young man for a slightly older mentor who introduces him to the marvels of the world and to the stirrings of creativity that can open life up further in the most wonderful way. Imaginatively, Coppola situates this within the wonderful little universe of La Boca, and although it is a little bit predictable in places – the Latin passions of love/hate relationships, the artiness of the underground theatre experiences – they nonetheless effectively convey the great impression such a lifestyle would have on a young man from a restrictive background. That background, shared by Tetro and Bennie, is one of an overbearing father, a famous conductor who they were once proud of, but whose light casts a great shadow over the achievements and ambitions of everyone else.
There are echoes of Rumble Fish in all this (which can only be a good thing as far as I’m concerned), not only in the relationship between a cool older boy and a younger admiring brother, both of them dreaming of escape from the life they have been born into, but even in the cinematography, the main part of the film shot in scope in gorgeous stylised black-and-white (on HDCAM), with some sequences relating the backstory of their father filmed in colour (and in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio). In place of the “rumble fish” and The Motorcycle Kid’s colour blindness, here there is the repeated motif of both Tetro and Bennie as moths in danger of burning their wings against the light of their father’s overwhelming genius.
Bennie’s going to visit Tetro then is about finding a place for oneself that is not measured against the brighter light of another, but more than just being about family rivalry and dark secrets, it’s also about formative influences and creativity. Tetro, and subsequently Bennie, initially are both trying to create a story through their own lives – Tetro trying to rewrite his, Bennie trying to gain some understanding of where he fits into it all. Later, the desire is there to express this through writing and drama, using a fictional construct to better understand and give that life some kind of structure and meaning. The search to find a way of expressing this is shown through certain creative influences, but more than just listing those influences, Coppola introduces them as elements in the film itself. Pressburger and Powell’s The Red Shoes is mentioned, but a section of the film is given over to a sequence from Tales of Hoffman, which then becomes a key influence in Bennie’s reworking of Tetro’s abandoned writing. When used in this way, it suddenly becomes evident what Coppola was attempting to achieve with his flawed masterpiece One From The Heart through its use of music, colour and fantasy sequences.
Occasionally those influences are pushed just a little too far and the film is a little over-ambitious in its aims. The sequences with the famous South American critic “Alone” (Carmen Maura) and the drive to the remotest regions of South America for the Patagonia Festival are an attempt to also consider fame, the personal cost of fame and the danger of losing sight of what one is trying to achieve artistically once the search for critical acclaim and acceptance become more important than the work itself. It’s all highly entertaining, but pushing a little too far into outright fantasy to take this all into consideration within a single film. And as if he hasn’t taken on enough with the personal drama being enacted between Bennie and Tetro, and the influences and origins of those first creative stirrings, Coppola pushes the family drama to its limits with a high melodrama conclusion that has echoes of Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. Taken in the context of the personal nature of the rest of the film, it’s a brave decision that is in keeping with the subject, with the nature of families, fame and influences, and an indulgent and sympathetic viewer will take all this in the spirit in which it is intended, but it risks alienating the more mainstream casual viewer.
Thankfully, Coppola doesn’t seem to be concerned with appealing to mainstream Hollywood audiences or running through the motions and formula dictated by an Academy consensus about what filmmaking should be about. Tetro sees Francis Ford Coppola taking up the reins, returning to his roots, rediscovering personal influences and taking them in a direction that is uniquely his own. Serving almost as a commentary on his career as a person and as a filmmaker, demonstrating all the storytelling and visual qualities that are characteristic of the director and being highly entertaining into the bargain, if it’s not a masterwork Tetro is certainly the work of a master. Given a couple of decades however, I suspect that this late return to form could very well be looked back on, re-evaluated and considered as being up there along with the very best of Francis Ford Coppola.