Tetro

Movie Information

The Story: A young man attempts to reconnect with his brother who ran away from home years before, only to uncover truths that neither of them are prepared to face. The Lowdown: An altogether beautiful and dynamic piece of filmmaking -- personal and bold and unlike anything you've seen or are likely to see this year.
Score:

Genre: Drama
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Vincent Gallo, Maribel Verdú, Alden Ehrenreich, Klaus Maria Brandauer, Carmen Maura
Rated: NR

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.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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13 thoughts on “Tetro

  1. Wally H

    Henke is wrong – this is not a run of the mill 5 star movie. This is in a class apart. The best dysfunctional family movie ever. Jack Nicholson has lived to see Five Easy Pieces eclipsed. The final 15 second’s Hollywood ending is the only place where Coppola’s feet touch the ground but the fadeout to credits is another in a very long line of brilliantly creative shots. I, like the rest of the audience, just sat there overwhelmed and stunned as the closing credits rolled, uncertain whether to clap or make prostrations to the master.

  2. Don’t know who this Henke fellow is…
    I walked past a Haneke box set in a shop the other day and did a double take before I realised what it actually said. The picture bore a passing resemblance to you too…

  3. Sunday

    I had no idea Coppola had a new film coming out either, but this sounds marvelous. Your review really has me excited, so much so I’ll likely be seeing this tomorrow night. Thanks so much.

  4. Ken Hanke

    I walked past a Haneke box set in a shop the other day and did a double take before I realised what it actually said. The picture bore a passing resemblance to you too…

    Isn’t it wonderfully typical that this would be a filmmaker who has never made a movie I liked (of those I’ve seen)?

  5. Ken Hanke

    I’ll likely be seeing this tomorrow night.

    I’ll be interested to see how you feel about it. A friend of mine (who often doesn’t agree with my taste) called last night to say he’d seen and was blown away by it. Of course, he then asked me if I could keep his cats for three weeks, which may or may not have been related to his enthusiasm.

  6. Sunday

    Yeah, I’d be wary of that. I’ll give you my thoughts with no favor requests attached.

  7. Michael H.

    I just finished seeing this film at the Fine Arts Theater in downtown Asheville. I left the theater speechless.

    “Isn’t it wonderfully typical that this would be a filmmaker who has never made a movie I liked (of those I’ve seen)?”

    I feel the same way. I mildly enjoyed a few of his films when I was younger (The Godfather, Dracula), but as I’ve grown (along with my interest in films), I’ve come to find them schlocky. I feel that Tetro is a movie that future generations may consider a touchstone for this era of cinema.

  8. Ken Hanke

    “Isn’t it wonderfully typical that this would be a filmmaker who has never made a movie I liked (of those I’ve seen)?”

    That actually refers to Michael Haneke, Coppola. It nearly could refer to Coppola if it weren’t for Apocalypse Now (especially the “Redux”). The Godfather has become an even bigger cliche (and more incomprehensible one) on best/favorite movie lists than Citizen Kane. However, I am mindful of the fact that my resistance to it is similar to my resistance to a lot of Scorsese pictures, i.e., no matter how good they might be, I’m uninterested in the subject matter to such a degree that boredom is inevitable.

    I feel that Tetro is a movie that future generations may consider a touchstone for this era of cinema.

    That is something that only time will tell.

  9. Ken Hanke

    Well, apart from disagreeing with nearly everything you said — not to mention the stream of consciousness way in which you said it — we’re pretty much in accord.

  10. Todd

    Saw this Sunday and we the audience sat through soundless credits and the first few minutes of the film before some brave soul (not me) tromped downstairs to question whether or not this Tetro movie is actually a silent film because the lips are moving but…

    Amusing, I thought, that it took so long for someone (not me) to get up and ask. It would be helpful, Mr. Hanke, if future reviews stipulate whether or not a film is one of them newfangled talkies or not. Just to save me some confusion, is the latest Transformers vehicle (sorry) armed with sound or robot-enhanced dialogue cards?

    Enjoyed Tetro, by the way. The missus and I are still talking about it days later and that’s always a good sign of a film’s impact.

  11. Ken Hanke

    It would be helpful, Mr. Hanke, if future reviews stipulate whether or not a film is one of them newfangled talkies or not.

    I actually came very near to responding to a theater patron who asked if a movie was supposed to have sound with “Yes, I believe it is a talkie.” Stranger, though, is the fact that I went to investigate the matter — only to find the movie hadn’t started yet, and wasn’t supposed to for five minutes.

    Just to save me some confusion, is the latest Transformers vehicle (sorry) armed with sound or robot-enhanced dialogue cards?

    Actually, it comes with a do-it-yourself lobotomy kit.

    Enjoyed Tetro, by the way. The missus and I are still talking about it days later and that’s always a good sign of a film’s impact.

    Almost always a very good sign.

  12. john r

    We finally got to see this film and I can understand why it is such a critic favorite: beautifully made, serious emotional issues, and revelations. The crowd in the theater seemed to find much of the movie worth chucking at and a moderate amount of heckling went on, I guess I missed the humor. We had an animated conversation about the movie on the drive home, and that seems to be our indicator of how good the movie was. I don’t know if I wholly agree with the 5 star rating, but definitely a strong 4.

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