Beneath all of its thematic and stylistic variegation, Francis Ford Coppola's work has generally alternated between two major threads since the outset of his career: tightly knit, intimately observed character studies that enable the writer-director to masterfully peel back layers of ordinary human lives and expose emotional complexities beneath (exemplified by The Rain People, The Conversation, and Rumble Fish, among others) and the director's epic tendencies that play out broad human conflicts sweepingly, operatically, and to varying degrees of success -- think the Godfather films, Apocalypse Now, The Cotton Club.
The most fascinating and impressive quality of the director's Argentine-set drama Tetro is its willingness to bridge the two forms. This accomplishment merges with thinly veiled autobiographical elements that run throughout the picture, and the film thus suggests both an apotheotic summation of Coppola's entire oeuvre and a creative renaissance for the filmmaker.
This sumptuously shot, predominantly black-and-white drama opens in a nocturnal, contemporary Buenos Aires, where two-story stucco apartment buildings line the streets. Packed next to one another, shuttered and barred, they suggest thousands of kept intimacies -- the mysteries and enigmas of a culture and its residents left undiscovered. That is a fitting image, for the first hour of this movie will pull us from the unfamiliarity of these streets into the coziest and most intimate emotional exchanges of two family members reunited behind the closed doors of one of the homes. 17-year-old Benjamin "Bennie" Tetrocini (neophyte actor Alden Ehrenreich) arrives via bus; he's a military deserter-turned-waiter on a cruise ship, on temporary shore leave while his boat undergoes repairs. He takes advantage of the opportunity to visit his reclusive older half brother, Angelo (Vincent Gallo). An eccentric holed up in Buenos Aires with his free-spirited wife, Miranda (Maribel Verdú), Angelo abandoned a career as a writer in favor of occasional work running the spotlight at a local theater, and renamed himself "Tetro." Though laconic ad extremis, Tetro nevertheless dominates every room with his imposing build and an emotional intensity that projects itself with swift, cutting body language and a face weathered beyond its years. Tetro abandoned Bennie and the rest of the family, including their famed conductor father (Klaus Maria Brandauer), many years prior. Now, faced with Bennie's unplanned arrival, Tetro insists on some simple rules: no personal or revealing conversation, no emotional intimacy, no conversations about the past. Bennie doesn't respond favorably to these requests.
For the first hour or so, Coppola essentially constructs a chamber drama -- a pas de trois between Bennie, Tetro, and Miranda that finds the sailor persistently attempting to extract insights into the family's unclear history from his brother and sister-in-law, the details of Tetro's belletrism, and the reasons for the man's emotional exile. Tetro at first responds negatively, and then with mild emotional violence, to Bennie's relentless probing, though the younger brother's curiosity is borne out of genuine fraternal love and a desire to connect.
These early elements of the film crackle with the intensity and the thrill of discovery that one associates with outstanding literature, as the writer-director simply basks in the pleasure of etching out the relational nuances between the three lead characters, and engineering the dramatic developments of the tale with a godlike hand, as he meditates on themes including family, memory, guilt, betrayal, reconciliation and artistic expression. So strong, in fact, are the literary qualities of the work that one senses it might have functioned equally brilliantly as a novel -- enabling Coppola to further plumb his way into the psychological depths and complex familial backstories of his subjects. On another level, however, cinema feels like the perfect medium for this tale, for it enables the director to utilize a hypnotic, moody onscreen aesthetic, laced with bursts of stylistic experimentation that use periodic color footage as vivid expressions of memory and dramatizations of literary narratives that Tetro has constructed.
After the first hour, we may feel we're on familiar turf, but a broad leap away from chamber drama occurs about midway through the film. It may be inevitable, given the initial setups, that Coppola would eventually unveil hidden truths about the family's past and the reasons for Tetro's withdrawal in the final act; what we might not anticipate, however, is the writer-director's rapid and commendably fluid segue into a full-blown operatic melodrama, with swells of aria on the soundtrack, cutaways to staged ballet with CG-animated backgrounds (which repeatedly reference Powell and Pressburger's 1951 Tales of Hoffmann), or at least one major final twist that recolors our perceptions about the major characters. The later elements of the film suggest the same goals as Bernardo Bertolucci's 1979 melodrama Luna (i.e., taking the extreme operatic tropes of classical tragedy and incorporating them into a contemporary dramatic framework), but where Bertolucci fell on his face, Coppola soars.
Ultimately, though, Tetro succeeds because of its ability to keep the audience emotionally invested in its central characters and their transitions -- journeys capped off with the heart-rending final sequence. When the final payoff comes, it not only brings everything preceding it into razor-sharp focus, but doubles our level of emotional investment in Bennie and Tetro, and leaves the audience with feelings of warm, lingering satisfaction that the film has fully earned.
cast-crew for Tetro on AllMovie