Francis Ford Coppola’s “Tetro” (2009)

Notable Festivals: Cannes (Quinzaine des Realisateurs), Melbourne, Belfast

The release of 2007’s YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH, while middling in its critical reception, proved to be a reinvigorating event for director Francis Ford Coppola.  After a decade-long absence from the screen, the middle-aged filmmaker had found an energy and inspiration matching that of an ambitious and inquisitive film student forty years his junior.  After a long run of compromise and disappointment in the studio system, he had finally found a method that worked for him.  By financing his own films entirely from his winery profits, he could assume total creative control and succeed or fail on his own terms.

Not long after YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH wrapped production, Coppola began working on his follow-up:  a darkly romantic tale of familial discord between two estranged brothers in Buenos Aires.  Titled TETRO (2007), the film would harken back to his earliest work by focusing on subtle relationship dynamics and gorgeous, unadorned cinematography.  Like its cinematic predecessor, TETRO was similarly received with mixed reactions and lackluster box office returns, but Coppola’s daring vision makes for his strongest and most-respected film in years.

A teenaged boy, Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich), arrives in Buenos Aires after the cruise line he works as a waiter for suddenly experiences an engine room fire and has to dock for a few days.  He takes advantage of the scenario by calling upon his older brother Tetro (Vincent Gallo), who took off on a mysterious writing “sabbatical” when Bennie was only a child and hasn’t been seen since.  When Bennie reunites with Tetro, he finds a deeply-cynical and mean-spirited man who wants nothing to do with his family, and his past.  The only way of understanding Tetro’s current state of disdain, as well as Bennie’s own heritage, is to examine his scribbled writings, which Bennie procures through the deception of Tetro’s well-intentioned girlfriend Miranda (Mariba Verdu).  In doing so, Bennie uncovers a complicated family history and a shocking secret about his true lineage.

Part of Coppola’s new filmmaking method seems to be anchoring a cast of talented international unknowns around a singular star name.  YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH had Tim Roth, TETRO has film renegade and provocateur, Vincent Gallo.  Gallo, who swears by the benefits of improvisation during the production process on his own directorial work, had to realign himself with Coppola’s own meticulously-rehearsed philosophy.  The result is a strong performance by Gallo, who uses his trademark eccentricity to striking effect as a reclusive, disgruntled genius.  Gallo’s Tetro is volatile and prone to psychotic outbursts, but he also finds an inherent humanity that pays off in the film’s final moments.

Of the unknown cast, Ehrenreich and Verdu stand out the most.  Ehrenreich drew comparisons to a young Leonardo DiCaprio in his performance as an inquisitive young man with a well-travelled innocence.  Verdu projects a feminine warmth and grace as Miranda, Tetro’s demure girlfriend who gave up a promising career in medicine to attend to his off-kilter needs.  Together, both actors create a tangible foundation for Gallo to build off of, reigning in what could have been an indulgently bizarre performance and turning it into something insightful and touching.

Coppola re-enlists the services of cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr, who appears to be this career phase’s incarnation of Vittorio Storaro.  Seeing TETRO as a thematic companion piece to his 1984 film RUMBLE FISH, Coppola wanted to emulate the black and white cinematography of the latter, while also evoking the texture and compositional elegance of old photographs.   TETRO also marks Coppola’s second time using the high definition digital format as his acquisition medium, which makes for razor-sharp lines that heighten the noirish, black and white photography.  The camera never moves, utilizing carefully-composed 2.35:1 frames to tell Coppola’s story.

Ever the visual pioneer, Coppola uses another conceit to redefine our notions of the tried-and-true “flashback”.  Shot in a letterboxed 4:3 aspect ratio that evokes the boundaries of old 8mm film, Coppola shows us the twists and turns of Tetro’s complicated family history in striking color and handheld camerawork.  These don’t resemble home movies, however—the glossy sheen of the digital cinematography makes these sequences appear as if they were concurrent along the main story’s timeline.  The warm color tones that Coppola emphasizes during these sequences depict an objective truth that is obscured in the expressionistic, stark sequences set in the present day.

Also reprising his role in Coppola’s key creative team is Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov, who crafts a somber, jazzy score that calls to mind 1974’s THE CONVERSATION, albeit with an accordion-based, Latin influence.  Coppola also indulges his affectations for opera music throughout the film by incorporating an entire subplot around it.  This paints cosmopolitan Buenos Aires as a cultured city of good taste and history, making the juxtaposition of pop and rock cues all the more striking.

Coppola is well within his directorial wheelhouse here, combining several thematic conceits from films throughout his career.  The aforementioned RUMBLE FISH connection is the most obvious, but there are other hidden references, such as a visual callback to his 1963 debut, DEMENTIA 13.  The subtle relationship dynamics call to mind Coppola’s understate film, THE RAIN PEOPLE (1969), while the themes of family and success evoke THE GODFATHER TRILOGY.  By returning to his low-budget roots, Coppola proves to a powerful and fearless independent filmmaker.

The man’s career has always been predicated upon the theme of family, both as a dramatic focus as well as his collaborative tendencies (son Roman once again serves as the second unit director).  While Coppola’s Italian roots have been extensively explored throughout his life, TETRO finds Coppola grappling with his other, Argentinian bloodline.  The film allows him to draw a throughline between both cultures to find the similarities in their tastes in art and architecture, their lifestyles and social customs, and most of all, in their attitudes towards the family unit.  Coppola has publicly stated that TETRO is a very autobiographical film, albeit one that doesn’t contain a single true event.  The truth Coppola speaks of is in the emotions at play– an apt reference for art itself, where the only truth that matters is emotional truth.

As of this writing, Coppola has since directed another feature—2011’s TWIXT—which has yet to be released to a wide American audience.  As such, my analysis of Coppola’s career and filmography concludes (for now) with TETRO.  The man is a giant of international cinema, with an inarguably profound legacy.  Careers like his are some of the most rewarding for the purposes of The Directors Series, as they provide a decades-long examination, complete with highs and lows that welcome insightful analysis when freed of the context of the times they were released in.

My general takeaway on Coppola’s development is that he has always been an innovator, challenging his audience by redefining how films are constructed and presented.  One of his earliest influences was Sergei Eisenstein, the father of film editing technique and theory.  While they are commonplace to the point of invisibility today, Eisenstein’s innovations were radical and incredibly influential during the earliest days of cinema.  An entire visual language sprung up around cinematic storytelling, and Coppola spent the majority of his career building upon that language and challenging our relationship to it.

Coppola will always be remembered as one of the greatest directors of all time, mainly due to the uninterrupted run of absolute masterpieces he released during the 1970’s.  Each of those four films—THE GODFATHER (1972), THE CONVERSATION ,THE GODFATHER PART II (1974), and APOCALYPSE NOW (1979)—is highly regarded not just in film circles but in the entirety of art.  Each of them have been deemed culturally significant and worthy of preservation by the National Film Registry.  They netted Coppola Academy Awards and Cannes Palme d’Ors.  He could have only made these four films and still be considered one of the greatest that ever lived.

Luckily, Coppola was not one to rest on his laurels, and always strove to push the boundaries of the art form, at great risk to his own legacy.  His failures may have tarnished his reputation as a filmmaker, where priority is placed on commercial success, but they have solidified his legacy as a true artist.  Coppola will always surprise us, because his work isn’t preoccupied with the popularity contest of mainstream Hollywood filmmaking.  He began as a maverick on the fringes, and that is where he will end it.  But until that day comes, keep those surprises coming.

TETRO is currently available on high definition Blu Ray from Lionsgate.


Produced by: Francis Ford Coppola, Fred Roos

Written by: Francis Ford Coppola

Director of Photography: Mihai Malaimare Jr

Production Designer: Sebastian Orgambide

Edited by: Walter Murch

Original Music by: Osvaldo Golijov