Film review by: Witney Seibold
The central theme of Francis Ford Coppola’s little oddity “Tetro” is one of family. Now, I don’t know many details of the infamous Coppola legacy in Hollywood, although some cursory Internet research has taught me that Francis was the son of a famous conductor, and the question of legacy has always been a point of contention. Also, that Coppola has spawned some talented film directors himself can only feed into the myth.
“Tetro” is a film about a young man who seeks out his half-brother in order to find out about their famous-composer father, and it may or may not be autobiographical. Although it’s just as likely that Coppola’s operatic story is merely a riff on certain autobiographical facts. Even if it’s completely fictitious, it’s irresistible for the film-savvy viewer to draw parallels to the director’s own life. But whichever of those things it is, “Tetro” does feel self-indulgent and even a mite opaque. Coppola produced the film with his own money and distributed it with his own production company, but it feels a lot like an indie director’s first effort, complete with strange stylistic experiments, a meandering story, interesting and admittedly grand themes, and no small amount of narcissism.
Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich, a shoo-in for Emile Hirsch), has arrived in Spain to find his half-brother Tetro (Vincent Gallo, playing the same whiny, narcissistic misanthrope he plays in all of his movies). Bennie wishes to know about details of their father’s life, which has remained largely secret from Bennie. All that is known by Bennie is that he was a famous composer, and that he was kind of abusive. Tetro, meanwhile, has tried his hardest to remain hidden from his entire family, and to keep his identity hidden, perfectly content to live like a caved ogre with his pretty and supernaturally understanding girlfriend Miranda (Maribel Verdú). Tetro was once a playwright, but now only occasionally works the lights at a friends’ theater. During live performances, he badgers the actors, and openly criticizes all the details. The only person he seems to respect is an enigmatic theater critic known only as “Alone” (Carmen Maura).
Tetro also has authored an epic play about betrayal and all the rest, presumably about his own life. He wrote it in code, and keeps it hidden in a suitcase. Bennie ransacks the suitcases, and goes about decoding the play. This means that Tetro’s very private story may be exposed. Tetro discovers Bennie’s actions, and is angry beyond all reason. What is behind this enigmatic man?
Well, actually, Tetro is not an enigma whom we are eager to solve. Tetro is a whiny asshole who clearly longs for fame (why else would he keep his story around? Why else would he care what a critic thinks? Why would he stay embroiled in theater?). That he is played by Vincent Gallo doesn’t help things, as Gallo is notorious for his self-serving, onanistic antics on- and off-screen (this is the man who offered vials of his semen for somewhere between $30,000-$50,000).
Coppola isn’t content to let his story rest there, and we wander along for a little while longer. A playwriting competition becomes involved, Bennie has a strange, vaguely incestuous romance, a couple of people get hit by cars (counting ballet re-enactments, there are five traffic accidents in the film), and secrets of the past get revealed, mostly having to do with the deaths and births of certain family members.
There are vivid color flashbacks (the film was shot in black and white, on digital film), and there are some expressionistic dance numbers that seem like they may have been clipped from a Julie Taymor film.
It’s an endlessly fascinating film, and one can clearly see the level of ambition that Coppola clearly had in brining this odd experimental baby of his to the screen. The problem is, I’m not sure it’s really all that much fun to watch. It comes across as a little too vague, a little too self-obsessed, a little too over-the-top to have the operatic impact it was clearly reaching for.
I can’t say I recommend it, but then I’ve always said I would rather see a fascinating failure than a mediocre success.