For close to a decade now, Francis Ford Coppola has been the subject of critical conjecture - and some aesthetic ridicule. Between 1997 and 2007, he didn't make a movie. Prior to that, the '90s were rife with commercial successes (Bram Stoker's Dracula, The Godfather Part III) and absolute junk (the Robin Williams fiasco Jack). Throughout the period, he touted the upcoming "digital" revolution, arguing that the ready availability of filmmaking technology would change the face of the medium. While he was partly right (look at the number of homemade movies released every year), it didn't excuse his absence, and his return to fray three years ago (the uneven Youth Without Youth) was met with a combination of confusion and caution. While he failed to embrace his own pronouncements about the future of celluloid, he showed he still had some spark left. This was clear from 2009's operatic Tetro. Set in Buenos Aires and dealing with a family of competitive artists, it showed that Coppola still had the overreaching ambitions of his past glory. It also argued for the beauty and splendor of good old fashioned big screen/big idea cinema.
Bennie has runaway from his military school in the States, lying about his age and taking a job as a waiter on a cruise ship. When his boat breaks down near Argentina, he decides to look up his absentee brother (and frustrated writer) Angelo, now living in the foreign country. Arriving at his humble home, he meets Miranda, a beautiful woman with some bad news - Bennie's sibling doesn't want to see him. Eventually, Angelo comes around and explains the reasons for his reluctance. He purposefully left America because of their famous father, an internationally known conductor and wants to leave all connections behind. There is also a tragedy in his past that continues to haunt him.
When Bennie is involved in an accident, he ends up staying in Argentina. Angelo, now known as "Tetro", is still reluctant to have a meaningful relationship. Even worse, little brother has unearthed the man's mangled manuscript, a complicated puzzle of codes, contradictions, and backwards scribbling. While deciphering its contents, Bennie learns some startling truths about the family. During a high profile artist's competition, however, he learns the real reason Tetro has been away from America (and him) for so long.
Tetro could be called a return to form, a revitalization of Francis Ford Coppola's creative brilliance capped off by some of the brashest, boldest directorial choices of his entire career. In a mixture of brooding black and white and Golden Age Hollywood color, the auteur unearths a universal story of family and found connections, the discovery of identity and the reasons why someone would hide same. At its core, it's a mystery, the question of Tetro's trek to Argentina and the explanation for his exile sitting at the center of the narrative. But it is also a journey of emotional discovery, a chance for a young man who believed in his older brother to excise the demons of abandonment. Everything centers around a father (played with an excellent level of passionless disconnect by Klaus Maria Brandauer) who used his celebrity and status to break all the bonds of family. We learn of an equally talented but dismissed Uncle, two different women and the tragedy surrounding each, and the lasting influence of this powerful yet relatively weak-willed giant. For Coppola, the main theme here is misplaced idolatry. For Bennie, it's the mistake belief in his brother. For Tetro, it's the shadow of his unsupportive father.
Like a novel, Coppola unfolds his narrative in languid, lyrical chapters, each one adding another layer to our understanding of the story. We meet Miranda, who leads us to the flashback tale of Tetro's name change, his time in an asylum, and the reasons why he refuses to write. The local theater company also plays a major role in the story, the appearance of the various members adding comedic and sexual context to the community everyone circulates around. Tetro himself has a series of home movie like memories which fill in the gaps about his youth and his constantly simmering anger. With the uncovering of the manuscript's allegorical truths, as well as the conversational confrontations which lead to major revelations, the plotting often takes the place of anything remotely thrilling or exciting. There are no chase scenes, moments of action, or stunt sequence. Coppola does, however, reference the brilliant dance and musical sequences shot by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger for their films The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffman. The use of over-processed Technicolor-eseque visuals, plus the obvious link made to the situations in the story, give the moments an unearthly effect which brings out the deeper psychological meanings in the character's lives.
As far as performances go, no one in the cast truly stands out. As Tetro, Vincent Gallo is given little to do except brood and backtrack. Since the storytelling is mostly visual and inferential, there are no major monologues or moments of defining dialogue. Only at the end, when we learn the final secret that he's been hiding, does Tetro turn from expositional to emotional. Newcomer Alden Ehrenreich is given the far more complicated role of Bennie, and he brings a nice level of naiveté to what is really nothing more than a catalyst. As the outsider in Tetro's world, he doesn't go through a huge personal transformation. Instead, he represents an idealized tie to what our main character cannot have, and ultimately must confess to. Elsewhere, Maribel Verdu is excellent as Miranda, part Earth mother, part voice of veiled reason, and several other Spanish speaking actors add the necessary local color. The real star here, though, is Coppola, apparently coming out of some industry mandated funk to refuel his lagging filmmaking fortunes. The direction is focused and cleverly composed, never obtrusive but never letting you forget that there is someone behind the lens, pulling the strings. While one could complain about is commercial viability, no one can question is level of artistry. Tetro may not be a complete comeback for Coppola, but after the decade he's had, it sure feels like one.
In a word - stunning. While the monochrome may not be true black and white (there is a slightly blue-ish tinge to the image, especially when juxtaposed against the cracking color sequences), the 2.35:1 1080p transfer is nearly flawless. Kudos to Coppola and his collaborator, cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. who both bring a kind of old master's majesty to the film's look and visual feel. The stylized material intercut into the story literally explodes with a vibrancy and clarity we aren't used to it modern moviemaking. The level of detail is astonishing, from the stubble on Gallo's face to the times when Powell and Pressburger and presented, front and center. The best part of the Blu-ray is seeing a genius work his magic within a medium that's definitely missed him. Like Martin Scorsese in Shutter Island, able to use technology and post-production tweaks to realize his aims, Coppola clearly pushed the boundaries of his craft here, and the results are resplendent.
Surprising in the amount of immersion and spatial relevance realized here, Tetro's lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is equally impressive. Coppola employs a score that mixes old filmmaking bravado with glimpses of jazz and South American spice. The dialogue is always crisp and clear, with conversations mixing perfectly with the ambient noises of the Argentinean streets. The ballet/dances sequences come alive with classical music majesty, while two major sequences shock us with their aural clash and contrasts. Blu-ray is often seen as a wholly visual format, but the sonic situation here argues for its artistic effect on the soundscapes.
We are treated to several intriguing feautettes, as well as a full length audio commentary from Coppola and star Ehrenreich. Recorded separately, each man offers their take on the film, the reasons behind certain sequences, and the overall effect they were striving for. It makes for a compelling complement to what's on screen. As for the individual bonus bits, Coppola discusses "The Ballet" and The Red Shoes influence on same, Malaimare clarifies his issues with crafting the film's look, while composer Osvaldo Golijov talks about his music for the movie. Elsewhere, the director and Gallo butt heads over "The Rehearsal Process", the entire female-ccentric "drama in verse", Fausta, is presented, and we get a peak at the real La Colifata psychiatric hospital. Finally, the entire credit sequence is offered, since Coppola insisted that only the cast proper be billed at the end of the film. Here, we get a chance to see everyone who participated in the process.
It's comforting to know that a former filmmaking idol hasn't completely lost his moviemaking marbles and can sum up something like Tetro without resorting to dimensional gimmickry or other cinematic stunts. While some might argue that mixing approaches and palettes represents an attempt to be obvious with one's novelty, this is Coppola - the man who once built Las Vegas in a soundstage to realize his vision. We expect pronouncements of grandeur, and Tetro delivers time and time again. While not a perfect film, it is a wildly ambitious and ultimately very satisfying one, earning an easy Highly Recommended rating. The Blu-ray also looks amazing, one of the high end titles to come out of Lionsgate often mixed bag of media. Though some will sit through this mesmerizing, meandering effort and lament the loss of the mind behind The Godfather saga and Apocalypse Now, others will see an aging artist redefining (and in some ways, rediscovering) his muse. Tetro is a terrific film. While he may not be back, Francis Ford Coppola is definitely not down for the count - not yet.