- The Washington Times - Friday, June 19, 2009

It is exceedingly brave for a man who directed such cinematic classics as “The Godfather” and “Apocalypse Now” to embark on a new career as an experimental filmmaker at an age when most Americans have retired.

Critics were merciless in reviewing Francis Ford Coppola’s 2007 film, “Youth Without Youth,” faulting him for an incoherence they would have celebrated in a film by, say, David Lynch. Actors, it seems, are not the only Hollywood players who can be typecast.

Those critics should be placated somewhat with “Tetro.” This is still the work of an artist for the most part shunning his past, much as the title character does. Its narrative is more straightforward, though; Mr. Coppola has combined the atmosphere of mystery he channeled so well in “Youth Without Youth” with the storytelling skills that made his name.

“Tetro,” Mr. Coppola’s first original screenplay since 1974’s “The Conversation,” is a woozy, dark but romantic film about the way family ties can both free and bind us. The black-and-white film — with some important moments filmed in color — mostly takes place in the bohemian La Boca district of Buenos Aires. Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich), a fresh-faced boy on the verge of 18, lands in the Argentine capital as a cruise-ship worker. The ship needs repairs, so he takes the opportunity to find his older brother. Bennie was just a child when Angelo (Vincent Gallo) left New York on a “writing sabbatical,” never to return.

The door is answered by Miranda (Maribel Verdu), Angelo’s live-in lover, who warns Bennie that his brother has no interest in being part of the family. Bennie doesn’t see his brother until the next day, when he’s informed, “Angie’s dead. My name is Tetro.” It’s not a propitious meeting, especially because the bitter Bennie can’t help poking at wounds that haven’t healed. Bennie is upset that Tetro never came back for him, as promised; Tetro is angry that Bennie has told Miranda their father is the world-famous conductor Carlo Tetrocini (Klaus Maria Brandauer). This larger-than-life patriarch of the Argentine-Italian family looms over their lives even as he lies on a deathbed thousands of miles away.

What drove Tetro away is revealed when Bennie finds his brother’s abandoned writing. When we see Tetro in flashbacks at an asylum, he looks as crazy as anyone there, clutching to his chest a sheaf of indecipherable papers. Bennie decodes them and discovers Tetro’s talent — and the awful truth about their creative but troubled family.

Mr. Gallo is at the center of this film as his character never was in his egomaniacal father’s life. He’s rough and vulnerable in equal measure, an actor well versed in playing the troubled soul. Talented newcomer Mr. Ehrenreich brings a blast of fresh air to both Tetro’s quiet life and the film. The film is peopled with a very high-caliber international cast, including Carmen Maura as the enigmatic literary critic Alone.

It’s wonderful to see Mr. Coppola working from his own material again, although the results are uneven. At times, the dialogue seems obvious, with its fair share of platitudes. Other times, it’s poetic. “Do you know what love is in a family like ours?” Tetro asks. “It’s a quick stab in the heart.”

The visuals are always the latter, though. The maestro’s funeral is a wonderful scene, with the casket laid out in front of an open score, the musicians in the background paying tribute to a genius. It’s a reminder of what Carlos ominously told his older son: “To make a living as a novelist, you’d have to be a genius. There’s only room for one genius in this family.”


TITLE: “Tetro”

RATING: Not rated (mature themes)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola

RUNNING TIME: 127 minutes

WEB SITE: www.tetro.com


• Kelly Jane Torrance can be reached at ktorrance@washingtontimes.com.

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