Film 2009 #121 – Tetro

Tetro (2009)
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Starring Vincent Gallo, Alden Ehrenreich, Maribel Verdu, Klaus Maria Brandauer

The Family has always been an important element in Coppola’s work. In The Godfather he examined the literal family and the symbolic family of the Italian mafia. The Outsiders and Rumble Fish took a close look at the divide between brothers by blood and brothers in gangs. Outside of his films, Coppola’s family has had an integral role: music in his early films was typical composed by his father Carmine, sister Talia and daughter Sophia employed their acting skills. And many of his family members have become involved in the industry, albeit changing their names for various reasons.

This element of family and changing names is a core part of Coppola’s newest film, Tetro. The film centers on Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich), a teenage boy living aboard a cruise ship who take advantage of a stop in Bueno Aires to visit his estranged brother Angelo (Vincent Gallo). Angelo has taken to calling himself Tetro (a variation on the family surname) and lives with a beautiful psychiatrist named Miranda (Maribel Verdu). Bennie finds Tetro is incredibly reticent to talk about their childhood and Bennie has been left in the dark about the family’s affairs his entire life. Their father, Carlo, a world famous composer is a dark shadow that hangs over them. As Bennie pries despite Angelo’s protestations he uncovers the dark truth about their family and finds his perceptions of life forever changed.

The film makes direct reference to Powell & Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, the tale of a ballerina driven to destruction by her mentor’s obsessions and Tales of Hoffman, a film adaptation of the opera about a poet struggling to find the middle ground between his literary passions and the passions of his heart. These inform us of the internal workings of Tetro, who presents himself to Bennie as a closed book. Bennie’s curiosity leads him to a suitcase full of Tetro’s writings which have dramatized their family’s history but also lack a concise ending.

Coppola employs an interesting technique with the present reality being a stark black & white while memories and fantasies are filmed in digitally faded Technicolor, resembling paintings almost. These color sequences are either memories from the direct POV of Tetro, meaning the camera is his eye, characters speak directly to him and us the audience, or they are ballet sequences composed of pas de deux between a male and female dancer. The music alternates between melodramatic opera and ethereal voices to symbolize Tetro’s strange reaction when staring into the heart of a lightbulb.

This film and 2007’s Youth Without Youth symbolize Coppola’s new direction. In the 1980s, the prestige he had garnered in the 70s frittered away and he began to focus more on producing and funding burgeoning filmmakers. The death of his son, Gian-Carlo also drove his own works to lessen or fail to love up to his promise. In interviews he calls this return his period of “student films”. These are the movies he wants to make and he has gathered enough wealth in his life that he can drop a few million of his own dollars into a film and not worry about whether it makes back its budget. This sort of artistic freedom is seldom seen in Hollywood anymore. Here’s to Coppola continuing this new artistic journey for years to come.

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