Wednesday, 30 June 2010
'Tetro' review: Francis Ford Coppola rediscovers his talent...
'The Godfather'. 'The Conversation'. 'Apocalypse Now'. With these three films Francis Ford Coppola had, by 1979, boldly and permanently engraved his name into cinema history. So universally admired and influential are those three films that his years spent as a hired gun in order to pay off debts (making such films as 'Jack' and the second 'Godfather' sequel) have done little to damage his reputation or to tarnish his legacy. With his place in history assured, the elder statesman of cinema is now able to make films (more or less) for his own sake and whenever he sees fit. His output has sharply declined over the last decade, but his recent movies are smaller and much more personal. None more so then 'Tetro', the film released in the US over a year ago (on June 11th 2009 to be precise) and the first to carry a solo writing credit for Coppola since 'The Conversation' in 1974.
'Tetro' stars enfant terrible Vincent Gallo in the title role as a man who has forsaken his past and, to some extent, his future in order to live a life of quiet anonymity. Maribel Verdú plays his supportive and kind-hearted girlfriend Miranda, whilst obscure television bit-part actor Alden Ehrenreich is his brother Bennie. Gallo, in spite of his reputation as a combative and sometimes spiteful man off camera, imbues Tetro with a warmth and vulnerability which is sometimes quite moving. He convinces completely as the suffering artist type and performs with an undeniable intensity.
Equally good is Verdú, who almost stole the show from Bernal and Luna in 2001's 'Y tu mamá también' and is just as brilliant a performer here. It is unthinkable that aside from roles in 'Pan's Labyrinth' and the 2004 flop 'The Alamo' Verdú has not been a regular sight on international movie screens. But happily Coppola has taken notice and in 'Tetro' she is able to showcase her talent: giving Miranda strength and intelligence, but also compassion and genuine sex appeal. Despite these winning performances, Alden Ehrenreich gives the star turn here, being reminiscent of a young Leonardo DiCaprio (with maybe a hint of Brando) in his facial expressions, mannerisms and delivery. Already tipped by some as the next Spiderman actor, Ehrenreich could definitely be a major star in the near future. There is also a small but welcome role for Rodrigo de la Serna (whose most famous role was in Walter Salles' 'The Motorcycle Diaries' in 2004) who is a cheerful screen presence as Tetro's friend Jose.
Mihai Malaimare Jr. (who also worked on Coppola's 2007 film 'Youth Without Youth') is responsible for the film's remarkable black and white photography, mostly shot in Spain and Argentina (where the film is set). You will not see a more beautifully composed and (dare I say) stylishly shot film this year. I was concerned before seeing it that 'Tetro' could turn out to be nothing more than art for arts sake: a pretentious and self-indulgent work and an exercise in style over substance. Yet 'Tetro' is in fact mainly driven by its story and the relationships between its central characters.
The narrative is admittedly slight and could probably be summarised in a few sentences, but the film's form helps to convey the emotional journey undertaken by Tetro and Bennie in coming to terms with the family's past. I don't know enough about Coppola's background to be certain, but this story of the rivalry between a fathers and sons feels as though it is of personal significance to the director. Tetro's flashbacks, which (in an amusing reversal of cinematic convention) take place in colour and a different aspect ratio to the rest of the film, are pretty successful at establishing a very real cause for the character's hurt. They are also somehow among the most convincing "memories" ever committed to film, feeling like incomplete sketches of moments in time. Not so much what happened, but what Tetro feels about what happened from his viewpoint.
Sometimes the film is self-consciously flashy, perhaps to its detriment as it distracts from the action at hand (such as when Tetro is seen speaking to Bennie in silhouette - cool as the image is). There are also colourful, CGI-infused scenes of dance in homage to the great ballet films of old (such as 'The Red Shoes' or 'The Tales of Hoffmann') which, for me at least, fell flat and seemed a little self-indulgent. But for every frame of misplaced virtuosity there is a genuine moment of genius. For example, there is a brilliant and jarring reverse angle involving a motorcycle accident which is powerful and magnificently executed.
Perhaps the film is too serious, too humourless for too much of its running time (which is overlong at just over two hours). It is intensely dramatic, and it is not an exaggeration to say it is almost operatic - not unlike Coppola's 'Godfather' films. This is clearly the desired effect but it leaves me feeling a little cold and disconnected. There are also some interesting themes which are not explored to a satisfactory degree. For instance, Tetro challenges Bennie to murder him in order to make the ending of his play more truthful. This idea about the relationship between art and "truth" and the supposed virtue in linking one to the other might have been better developed.
Despite these flaws there is almost no sensible argument for denying that 'Tetro' is Francis Ford Coppola's most interesting film since 1983's 'Rumble Fish' (with which the film bears more than a passing resemblance). That is not to say it is the most enjoyable or fun since that date, but it is certainly his most complete movie in a long while. It is written, directed and produced by Coppola with clear engagement and real love. In 'Tetro' we may have evidence that one of the medium's most celebrated artists has rediscovered his muse. A fact which we can only hope will lead to more interesting films in the future. If it doesn't turn out that way, then it is at least a respectable closing chapter to an interesting career.
'Tetro' is rated '15' by the BBFC and can still be seen at selected cinemas in the UK. The Duke of York's have two shows left at the time of writing: 13.30 and 18.15 on Thursday the 1st of July.