“Tetro” is the second film Francis Ford Coppola directed in as many years after a 10-year hiatus the Academy Award-winning director took from the job of which he is a master.
While both Sofia (“Lost in Translation,” 2004) and Roman (“CQ,” 2001) carry on the Coppola family talent for filmmaking, it will forever be fascinating to see the films that begin with the title card: “A Film by Francis Ford Coppola.” Even if the film misses the mark, for me, such as “Tetro” (2009).
“Tetro” is about the reunion of two brothers, Tetro (Vincent Gallo) and Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich), in Buenos Aires, their ancestral home. Their father Carlo Tetrocini (Klaus Maria Brandauer) left Buenos Aires for New York City and became a world-renowned composer and conductor.
The film focuses on the sibling and father/son rivalries, which have kept Tetro away from his family for many years.
The film opens with a close-up of Tetro staring at a moth continuously colliding with lit lamp bulb. Lights and the attraction to light is a visual motif Coppola uses throughout “Tetro.”
Tetro left New York years earlier for a “writing sabbatical” and never came back. We learn later, in the film, the sabbatical was a ruse and the source of an unforgivable rift in the family. Tetro isn’t even his birth name. It’s Angelo Tetrocini.
When Bennie arrives, Tetro doesn’t seem to want anything to do with him. Tetro introduces Bennie as “his friend” and not his brother.
One of the many questions Bennie has for Tetro is what happened with Tetro’s writing — the writing sabbatical. Tetro has abandoned his writing and now works a spotlight at a neighborhood cabaret theater.
Bennie finds Tetro’s work, in an old suitcase, and begins to piece together his, Tetro and their father’s histories. Bennie does more with Tetro’s writing but that would be a spoiler.
“Tetro” becomes even longer when Coppola indulges his filmmaking desires by placing full-color opera and ballet sequences in the film. These sequences never add anything to propel the story, but only to visually represent a plot point already stated in a previous piece of dialogue.
“Tetro” was shot primarily in black and white. There are flashbacks in color, which seems to denote, not a happier time, but a more vivid and painful part of Tetro’s earlier life.
Usually flashbacks are filmed in black and white or a sepia tone to, No. 1, make the flashback easier for an audience to identify, and No. 2, to add a sense of romance and longing. “Tetro” spins that around and makes the flashbacks seem garish and painful.
This is the “light motif” I mentioned earlier. Tetro is a talented writer, this he knows, but he is rejecting the “spotlight and colorful past” because he doesn’t want to repeat the family jealousy of an earlier generation.
If you see the film, this will make more sense, I don’t want to give away too much of the story. But, I mean, Tetro works the spotlight at a theater. He’s trying to make himself invisible.
The cinematography was quite remarkable to see. There is something magnificent about black-and-white photography, especially old, decaying neighborhoods (La Boca) in a vibrant city (Buenos Aires). There also is a gorgeous sequence of the glaciers in the Patagonia region of South America. Coppola adds the wonderful effect of flashing, bouncing lights, which makes the sequence mesmerizing, even in black and white.
Coppola has decided to make smaller, more personal films, now that he’s back in the director’s chair.
Whatever and however Coppola wants to make his latest batch of films, his presence is welcome.
There always should be a chair open for Coppola.
“Lost & Found” is a weekly column and review of films the author Seames O’Grady, self-professed movie expert, has in his DVD collection or on his Netflix queue, but just hasn’t got around to watching until now.