It’s unlikely that Francis Ford Coppola will ever make anything as momentous or influential as the first two “Godfather” films or “Apocalypse Now,” which one of the downsides of doing brilliant work so early in your career. In “Tetro,” however, he has made something personal and intimate that, while not brilliant, sticks to the grand, operatic themes that made him famous.
Significantly, “Tetro” is Coppola’s first film since 1974’s “The Conversation” that wasn’t co-written or adapted. It’s all Coppola, all from scratch. Certain details of it suggest autobiography — Coppola’s father was an orchestra conductor and composer, like the father in “Tetro” — but even as pure fiction the age-old story of family rivalries still resonates.
It’s set in Buenos Aires in the present, shot in black-and-white except — somewhat counterintuitively — for the flashbacks. Ben Tetrocini (Alden Ehrenreich), an 18-year-old American boy who works on a cruise ship, is in port while the ship undergoes repairs, and he takes this opportunity to visit his much older brother, Angelo, who left the family in New York City when Ben was young and never came back.
Angelo, played by Vincent Gallo, calls himself Tetro now, and he wants nothing to do with his former life. But his longtime girlfriend, Miranda (Maribel Verdï¿½), welcomes Ben into their apartment with open arms, describing herself as “your sister-in-law — well, sort of.” Vague or ambiguous relationships are a running theme. Ben and Tetro aren’t actually brothers but half-brothers, sharing a father. The old man (Klaus Maria Brandauer, seen in flashbacks) was an exacting orchestra conductor who once asked his own brother to remove his name from a subpar project, lest the Tetrocini name be blemished. His first wife, Angelo’s mother, died in a car wreck; Ben is the son of his second, much younger wife, who has been in a coma since Angelo left home nine years ago. Drama!
Tetro is sullen and cranky, a condition currently intensified by a broken leg that has him hobbling around uncomfortably. He is a failed writer, secretly storing away his unfinished life-story manuscript while he does odd jobs at a local playhouse owned by his friend Josï¿½ (Rodrigo De la Serna). (He calls Josï¿½ “brother” but introduces Ben as his “friend.”) Ben also has writing ambitions, and of course many details of Tetro’s life are in his own life story, too. Complicated jealousies ensue.
Shot in Argentina and photographed beautifully in widescreen by Mihai Malaimare Jr., “Tetro” has the look of nearly every one of Coppola’s films: solid, steady, with an old-fashioned glamour (enhanced by the use of black-and-white, no doubt). Coppola’s half-century of filmmaking experience is brought to bear in the simple yet elegant shot compositions and the swift but unhurried storytelling — things that usually take time to perfect, and that you often don’t notice about a film unless they’re absent.
With strong (albeit unremarkable) performances, “Tetro” falters only in its melodramatic story, which sometimes crosses the line from operatic to soap-operatic. What sticks with me afterward isn’t the specific story Coppola has told, but the ideas it brings up, these themes that have been the subject of stories for as long as there have been stories. “Tetro” won’t be as timeless as that; it won’t even be as timeless as Coppola’s other films. But it has a sublime, nostalgic beauty that makes it worth seeking out, separating it from many of the films it shares theater space with.
B (2 hrs., 7 min.; )