In Theaters: Tetro
Francis Ford Coppola loves to tell people these days about his second career in filmmaking. The first career... well, we know how that went. But even more interesting than the born-again indie's weirdly riveting sophomore effort Tetro is the period of unlearning that accompanied his decade away from directing. How did Coppola -- a world-class auteur with five Oscars, two Palmes d'Or and who created what even Stanley Kubrick called the best film ever made -- detour so far from his expertise while retaining the chops to tell utterly singular stories? More to the point, why did he take that detour? Tetro offers plenty of clues, and maybe even an answer.
Yet if you're one of those people still lamenting the decline of Coppola's Godfather-level artistic stature, expect a frustrating search in his latest film. In fact, either stop reading here or just give up on him altogether: Tetro won't tolerate anything less than complete submission to its dense, black-and-white Buenos Aires, where 17-year-old Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich, in an extraordinary debut) arrives one night in search of his estranged brother Angie. Landing on his doorstep in crisp cruise-ship whites, Bennie quickly befriends his sort-of sister-in-law Miranda (Maribel Verdú), retiring to sleep after a good cry over Angie's desertion years earlier.
And those really were the old days, as Bennie learns the following morning: Angie is now a relative stranger named Tetro (Vincent Gallo), whom Bennie confronts about his reluctance to even acknowledge the family he left behind. Their great composer father (Klaus Maria Brandauer) had more than a little to do with it, but in any case, Tetro announces, that was another life, and he'll have none of it during Bennie's Argentina furlough.
The bulk of Tetro comprises the unraveling of this secret, which in part mirrors Coppola's own self-rediscovery both behind the camera and on the page (Tetro is the filmmaker's first original screenplay since 1974's The Conversation). The rough edges show; on-screen, the edges are Tetro's problem, but their smoothing is Bennie's own, at the risk of devastating a barely-there relationship that requires more than a few quick fixes. "I'm going to save you," Bennie tells Tetro after having adapted his coded, unfinished memoir for the biggest theater festival in the country -- curated by Argentina's most influential critic, no less, who fell out with Tetro years before. A fight ensues, but it's not your everyday fraternal skirmish. This is a creator wrestling for and actively reclaiming control of his legacy, for better or worse. Sound familiar?
As Bennie, Ehrenreich exquisitely portrays the target of Coppola's experiment: like the director's audience, the impressionable, captivated, spoiled teen doesn't quite overstay his welcome in the artist's quarters, but unquestionably takes that patronage for granted. By the time of Coppola's big reveal, the whole of its impact lies in Ehrenreich's half-dreaming, half-dead eyes. The young man's reaction seems disproportionately severe under the circumstances, but he'll recover. Considering the public distaste for Coppola's self-proclaimed restoration, the symbolic punch leaves a mark.
If, that is, you sit still long enough to be touched. Tetro's New Wave flourishes, Fellini-esque digressions, silent-film exaggerations and student-film blocking are equal parts charming and cloying, and won't make the New Coppola many friends among those who dismissed his beautiful 2007 disaster Youth Without Youth out of hand. But for all his stylistic rebirth, Coppola did revert to his master's knack for casting, and Ehrenreich, Gallo (gloriously de-skeeved) and Verdú add weight to all but the most airless scenarios. At their best, Coppola and Co. make fantastic partners; at their worst, they make sublime victims. But in either case, prepare the welcome party. It's great to have a real filmmaker -- whomever he decides to be -- back at work. RATING: 7.5