“What has happened to our family?,” sighs an aging patriarch in Francis Ford Coppola’s Tetro—a line that inevitably inspires a little armchair psychology about the writer-director’s own famous family and many colorful tributaries that have branched off from it. This would be a mistake. That’s not to say that Tetro isn’t a personal film, quite the contrary, but ever since One From The Heart, Coppola’s idea of a personal film has been wrapped up in the aesthetics of stage and screen, and can be easily mistaken for artifice. Though touted as Coppola’s first original screenplay since his 1974 masterpiece The Conversation, its story of estranged brothers and Oedipal strife are as old as the theater itself, and their creative rivalry lends the film another distancing layer of meta sheen. It’s the product of a great dreamer and aesthete, rather than an authentic emotional experience—a gorgeous, crystalline bauble that really catches the light.
Photographed in spectacular black-and-white—save for a handful of flashback sequences in muted color—Tetro takes place in contemporary Argentina, but the old-world elegance makes it seem like 50 or 60 years earlier. Newcomer Alden Ehrenreich stars as a young cruise ship waiter who uses a five-day reprieve in Buenos Aires to track down his temperamental older brother Vincent Gallo. Ehrenreich finds Gallo a bitter and resentful shut-in living with his understanding girlfriend (Maribel Verdu) in the bohemian section of town, having given up his ambitions as a playwright. The brothers’ relationship to their domineering father, a world-famous conductor played by Klaus Maria Brandauer, is the skeleton key that explains their dysfunction.
Though considerably less ambitious (and considerably less awkward) than his last film, the also self-financed Youth Without Youth, Tetro again asserts Coppola’s willingness to go far out on a limb stylistically. Though the theatrical tropes in the screenplay are a little shopworn, the film gets more expressive as it taps into its operatic emotion, which flower in striking swathes of light and even a fantasy played out on wires. As a filmmaker, Coppola is once again at the height of his powers; as a dramatist, he’s considerably less engaged, as if merely seeking a classical hook on which to hang his fussed-over images. But oh what images!