I went into Francis Ford Coppola’s Tetro knowing absolutely nothing about it. I hadn’t seen a trailer or read a word about the film. When I was asked if I could make a screening of the movie, I had to ask what it was. I hadn’t even seen a poster until a few minutes before walking into the theater and taking my seat. I wasn’t prepared for anything in particular, but I certainly never dreamed that I’d find myself watching a film that mixed the most gorgeously photographed black-and-white wide-screen imagery I’ve seen in years with equally striking non-wide-screen color footage. As someone who isn’t a hardcore Francis Ford Coppola admirer, I also had no reason to expect that I’d spend the next two hours thinking, “Now, this is real filmmaking.” However, that’s exactly what happened.
Tetro may not be the best written movie out there; I’ll concede that point at once. I figured out the mystery at the story’s core considerably before Coppola chose to reveal it, but that didn’t make it any less compelling—nor did it diminish the power of its revelation to the characters. Regardless, there’s more to filmmaking than writing, and Tetro is positively alive with that “more.” Its level of visual beauty, psychological complexity and incredible creativity overcomes any reservations I might have about Coppola’s writing. And those reservations are minor in any case.
Tetro begins with 17-year-old Bennie (newcomer Alden Ehrenreich) arriving in Argentina in search of big brother, Angie (Vincent Gallo), who “deserted” him years earlier. Having run away from home himself, Bennie lied about his age and got a job on a cruise ship that somewhat conveniently develops engine trouble near his brother’s current home. Bennie—clinging to a note from long ago where Angie promised to come back for him—is hoping for a warm welcome and gets one from Angie’s girlfriend, Miranda (Maribel Verdú, Pan’s Labyrinth). Angie, on the other hand, is less than delighted by Bennie’s arrival, having shut himself off from his old life completely. In fact, he is no longer Angie, but calls himself Tetro, and has become a bitter expatriate who views himself as a failed writer, eking out a living on the fringes of the local theater community.
Against his better judgment, Tetro allows Bennie to stay till his ship is repaired. Circumstances dictate a longer stay than that, during which Bennie manages to translate and put in order a suitcase full of Tetro’s coded writings—writings that he thinks explain Tetro and what happened to him. In fact, he turns those writings into a play by giving them the ending they lacked. This action only enrages Tetro, who is finally persuaded to go along with the production at the urging of Miranda. But the conclusion Bennie has offered the work turns out to be untrue—a supposition that, however, will in turn bring that truth to light.
As a story, that’s about all there is to Tetro, which can be taken as part coming-of-age story (Bennie) and part coming to terms with one’s self (Tetro). It scores nicely on both levels, but what makes the film brilliant rather than merely good is the way—the wholly cinematic way—in which Coppola presents the material. It’s bold, full-bodied filmmaking all down the line, as past and present collide in ever-startling images and symbolic turns. Actions that at first seem incomprehensible make perfect sense as the story unfolds. On occasion Coppola teeters on the brink of pure melodrama, but melodrama is not entrely wrong for something as operatic in tone as this particular film, especially one that pays hommage to (and includes clips from) Michael Powell and Emerich Pressburger’s The Tales of Hoffman (1951).
An altogether personal film (there are strong traces of Copolla’s own life around the edges), Tetro is a rare cinematic experience on every level. There’s been nothing like it on theater screens for a very long time, and it serves as a reminder of that fact. Don’t miss the chance of seeing this on the big screen—its visual beauty demands it be seen large for full appreciation. I can’t wait to see it again—more than once. Not rated, but contains adult themes, nudity and language.