Friday, 21 October 2011

Film Review: Tetro


Title:Tetro
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Rating: 15
Runtime: 127 Minutes

During the 1970s, Francis Ford Coppola directed and wrote/co-wrote a mere four features; those were: The Conversation, Apocalypse Now and the first two Godfather films. They made him among the most celebrated filmmakers of his generation. Certainly, there can be few instances of directors achieving such simultaneous artistic and commercial success in Hollywood’s fraught history.

And yet, inevitably, such heights could not be maintained; as his reputation- and consequent freedom to spend studio’s money- profoundly atrophied in the eighties and nineties. Coppola’s own artistic malaise was apparent, as his output as a writer was all but eviscerated by the consequent ennui, and only the financially lucrative (though critically abortive) adaptation of Dracula provided temporary respite.

A new decade has, however, seemingly re-invigorated the septuagenarian. And while it is now his daughter, Sofia, that curries popular plaudits, the democratization of film making facilitated by increasingly cost-effective modes of shooting and editing pictures, coupled with the considerable proceeds still garnered by his own halcyon days, has seen a return to a more thoughtful, personal and explorative pieces, reminiscent of the intimacy of his first 1960s features.

Youth without Youth, the director’s charming, wistful dreamlike tail of a romance across ages, was his first film in over a decade. It also displayed a depth of emotion and theme wholly out of step with mainstream Hollywood, implying a confidence and boldness of method that had seemed deeply buried beneath the scar tissue of many battles fought with Hollywood studios.

It is against this backdrop that Coppola’s new feature, Tetro, had garnered anticipation amongst the weathered dwellers of darkened theatres than since the dizzy grandiose peaks of Apocalypse Now. Certainly, the film’s aesthetic and content matter belie a film-maker as confident and independent of mind as he has been since his youth, as the film has a great deal in common with the European film makers that so inspired his early work.


Ingmar Bergman is an overt touchstone for Tetro, and the ornate –predominantly black and white- palette and pacing, are redolent of Through A Glass Darkly, and it is a method wholly appropriate to a dark and twisted tale of family secrecy, and the damaged wreaked by narcissistic patriarchy. The story is a noirish and artful one- purposefully scripted, and possessing intelligently realised themes. Coppola’s casting of Vincent Gallo as a haunted writer and estranged elder brother seems, ostensibly, to make use of the man’s own cold enigmatic features and the ghostly monochrome shadows they cast.

Indeed, it is in the films first act- where his character, Tetro, is all willful, taciturn persona-that Gallo can be at his very best. Never-the-less, where the film lacks dramatic import, the bulk of the blame must lie with its American stars. When Gallo must evoke a man whose persona is crumbling to reveal the root of his inner-conflict and pathos, his limitations are laid bare, and he fails to convince in a form of cinema that represents a considerable departure from the frenetic pace of American film-making to which he is used. Likewise, his younger brother, Benny, played by Alden Ehrenreich, has expression, charisma and deportment drawn, or so it seems, from American television acting, and Tetro’s revelatory scenes are disappointingly stunted as a consequence.

Of course, the problems are not entirely the fault of the cast- there is a distinct lack of exposition concerning the relationship between Tetro and his literary mentor, Carmen Maura, and the film’s denouement is partially underwhelming as this potentially rich dramatic well is left palpably untapped.

Never-the-less Tetro is far from a work without merit. Its structure alone provides enough intrigue to keep it engaging throughout, and Coppola’s measured gloomy atmospherics and pacing impart affectation where the actors are unable. It is to be hoped that this most venerated names in film-making is still suitably emboldened to continue the daring and individual path he has rejoined after so long and continues an Indian summer in so distinguished a career.

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