At the age of 70 (and a millionaire many times over, thanks to both his film career and his wine-making enterprise), Francis Ford Coppola can afford to do whatever he wants on celluloid—which means there’s generally no one around to tell him when he’s being self-indulgent.
After a 10-year absence from directing, Coppola released the sprawling Youth Without Youth in 2007, which took the Benjamin Button backwards-aging conceit in even more metaphorically bizarre directions. Now, in Tetro, Coppola decides to wrestle with all his family issues in one story. And here he employs his always vibrant, fascinating visual style to deal with a story that probably matters only to him.
It is, at least, a more straightforward narrative than Youth Without Youth. In Buenos Aires, young cruise-ship waiter Bennie Tetrocini (Alden Ehrenreich) takes advantage of his ship’s mechanical troubles to look up his long-absent older brother, Angelo. But Angelo—a would-be writer who has changed his name to Tetro (Vincent Gallo)—has intentionally cut himself off from his family. As Bennie begins exploring Tetro’s never-published writings about their father, Carlo (Klaus Maria Brandauer), the reasons for that choice become clearer.
The myth that Coppola was ever a “commercial” filmmaker has been perpetuated by The Godfather’s legacy; his tastes were always esoteric. Here, he presents an artistically inclined man wrestling with his feelings about his father, a celebrated composer (just like Coppola’s dad, Carmine), through flat performances. The characters feel like puppets he is putting through the motions to get to the place he wants, uttering mundane dialogue along the way. “The words aren’t important,” argues one character. “Language is dead.” Coppola clearly agrees.
Everything turns grandly operatic—lush, colorful fantasies interrupting the black-and-white drama—during the final half-hour, which is fascinating to watch mostly for its over-the-top absurdity. It’s gorgeous, sure, but it’s mostly art as personal therapy. Coppola can afford to pay for it; audiences shouldn’t have to.
Vincent Gallo, Alden Ehrenreich, Maribel Verdú