My friend Angela and I saw a preview screening of Francis Ford Coppola's Tetro nearly two months ago now. Naturally I gave it a Twitter review pretty much as soon as I left the theater, but planned to give it a more detailed write-up later. It took me longer than I thought it would to get to that write-up, but here we are!
Most of the film is in black and white. Our main character is the 17-year-old Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich, channeling a young Leonardo DiCaprio - who, in my head, is still young himself), and the film opens with him arriving in Buenos Aires late at night wearing a sailor's uniform and carrying a bag with him. It's a wonderful opening, mysterious and odd - a stranger arriving in a strange land. When Bennie reaches an upstairs apartment - the address of which he has scrawled on a piece of paper - and announces himself, we quickly learn that he's no marine, just a worker on a cruise ship. By chance his ship has broken down, so he had time to wander off and visit his elder brother, who ran away from home years ago. Bennie looked up to his brother as a mentor, a role model, and a hero, and always dreamed of him coming back home to save him from a stifling life with the rest of the family - mostly because his brother told him he would do just that in the letter he left for Bennie when he ran away. But Bennie's brother never came back, and although Bennie never stopped looking up to him, he's hurt that he was abandoned. He wants his brother back, but he also wants an explanation.
But he's immediately hurt and disappointed again when his brother's kind, understanding live-in girlfriend, Miranda (Maribel Verdú), goes into the bedroom to talk to Tetro (which is the name Bennie's brother insists on going by now) and returns to reveal that Tetro doesn't plan on coming out to see his long-lost brother tonight. Bennie cries himself to sleep on the couch while his brother remains locked behind the door in the next room.
And this is all just the opening scene. It could be a short film in and of itself. The artistry of the visuals, the subtlety of the acting and storytelling, the moving drama of the story - it's all top notch.
The next morning, Tetro (Vincent Gallo) consents to emerge from his room and see Bennie. He comes out on crutches and with a cast on his leg; he was struck by a car some weeks ago and is still recovering (in fact, car accidents, and cars as instruments of death and transformation, will be a theme of the movie). He takes Bennie around town, introducing him to the life he's built here in Buenos Aires, and to the weird cast of characters that inhabits it. In the process, Bennie also gets reintroduced to Tetro himself. He's a strange man, private, irritable, secretive, morose, and prone to random moods - fits of rage and sadness and, rarely, joy. He demands that everyone follow seemingly arbitrary rules when interacting with him. But the reason why he's going by a different name is not arbitrary - he ran away and is hiding out here under a new identity in order to escape the weight, history, and pressure of his family. His father (played excellently in flashbacks by Klaus Maria Brandauer, whom I remember best from his roles in an odd couple of movies: Out of Africa and Never Say Never Again) is not only strict and demanding, but also an incredibly famous and revered conductor. Tetro wanted to be a great writer, but couldn't live under the shadow of his father's own overwhelming talent. And that's not all. Other dark and dramatic secrets lie between Tetro and his father, and between Tetro and Bennie. In the process of trying to force Tetro out of his shell and reawaken his talent, Bennie will not only awaken his own talent, and go on his own coming-of-age journey, he'll also dig up all these dark secrets, blow the family apart, and perhaps begin the process of putting it all back together again.
The first three quarters or so of the film are riveting and powerful, slowly uncovering, with careful subtlety and wry humor, a complex and moving family drama. But near the end, the film suddenly changes pace and takes a sharp turn off onto a rather odd and surreal path. It's a jarring shift of speed and tone and it doesn't really work very well. The movie becomes faintly ridiculous, freakish, melodramatic, and unbelievable.
Still, overall it's a fine piece of art, with an intriguing and moving story, beautiful photography, and powerful, vibrant performances. It's arguably the best film Francis Ford Coppola has made in many a year.