Francis Ford Coppola’s Tetro is a film of startlingly beautiful photography and design; it’s an incredibly pleasurable film just to look at. Shot in crisp, textured, glorious black and white that luminously fills the wide 2.35:1 frame, it is packed with shots that are simply stunning. And Coppola doesn’t just make pretty pictures; his entire technical presentation is flawless. I’ve seldom, in recent years anyway, seen a film that so skillfully utilizes composition, sound, hard cutting, and visual tricks to tell its story.
The problem is that it’s a story that’s barely worth telling. Tetro is a great-looking picture, but there’s a void at its center—it’s about two characters we don’t really care about, played by two actors who aren’t terribly interested in meeting us halfway. Those characters are Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich), a 17-year-old kid who runs off to Buenos Aires to track down his long-lost brother, and Tetro (Vincent Gallo), that brother—well, technically, half-brother. They are the sons of a world-famous composer; he remarried after Tetro and his mother were involved in a terrible automobile accident that left the woman dead. Tetro, a promising writer, left home many years before; he started, but never finished, an autobiographical novel, but went a little crazy and dropped out of society. He now lives with Miranda (Maribel Verdú), a lover/nursemaid who spends a lot of time making apologies for him (“He is like a genius,” she muses, “but without enough accomplishments, you know?”). Tetro knows a great deal about Bennie’s mother, who has been in a coma for several years, but he’s reluctant to share any information with the curious teenager; “He really doesn’t want to know his family any more,” Miranda explains, but of course secrets will be revealed and old wounds will be opened, as Bennie discovers the text of Tetro’s book and decides to adapt it into a play.
In spite of sharing screenwriting credits on most of his best films (and sporting a solo credit on The Conversation), Coppola’s screenplay is probably Tetro’s weakest element; it meanders, it ends about three times, and most of the dialogue is awfully thin. The wobbly declarative nature of the lines isn’t helped much by Gallo’s detached hipster line readings, and while Bennie certainly appears to have been written as a cipher, Ehrenreich doesn’t do much to transcend that. Strangely, the female members of the cast shine the brightest; Verdú, most memorable as the object of desire in Y Tu Mama Tambien, is just marvelous, turning in a shaded, complicated performance, while an actress named Ximena Maria Locono makes a fine impression in a brief but key role as Tetro’s lost love Naomi, seen in flashback.
In a neat flipping of convention, the present tense is seen in black and white while those flashbacks are in color (and in a more conservative 1.85:1 composition, framed within the wider image). That’s a nice trick, but some of the other touches (and narrative flourishes) flirt with pretentiousness—and others stop flirting and just go all the way. The film is occasionally interrupted by oddly surreal visual interludes (which the film explicitly states as being inspired by Powell and Pressberger’s Tales of Hoffman); they’re kind of silly, and the last one morphs into some kind of an story-interpretative ballet sequence (as if we’re watching an old Rogers and Hammerstein musical or something). By that point in the picture, they’re also competing for screen time with the play-within-the-film, plus the flashback scenes that inspire the play, and at some point, we have to ask how many levels of interpretation this shallow story actually needs.
That and many other questions will be asked in the final half hour, in which the film basically goes splat; a story twist is introduced that is painfully, obviously foreshadowed a few scenes earlier, while a clumsy climax at a peculiar theatre festival is awkwardly staged and entirely unsuccessful. That scene plays like the Solazzo scene in The Godfather, however, compared to the howlingly bad funeral scenes that follow it; the service itself is groan-inducing in its lurching, strident melodrama (including some hoary business with a conductor’s baton), while the scene that follows is choppily assembled and full of dialogue so amateurish, we’re left wondering if that actors were making up their lines. The final scene might have been effective, had it not been preceded my so much overwrought schmaltz.
But I just can’t overstate how great Tetro looks and how exquisitely it is made; it should be seen, just for the pure pleasure of its aesthetics. But the beauty of the images also spotlights the emptiness at its core. Bennie and Tetro have what should be an angrily emotional confrontation in a hospital room, but as Tetro leaves and slams the door behind him, I wasn’t thinking about the character or what he was going through; I was noticing how exquisite those white blinds looked on the door, and how bewitchingly they swung to and fro after the angry exit. Suffice it to say, I’m fairly certain that’s not what Coppola intended his audience to be considering at that moment.
The phrase “style over substance” gets tossed around too often. It’s usually applied to garbage like the Transformers movies, which are technically proficient but stupid on even a basic motor level—the style is all there is, and if it weren’t there, the substance wouldn’t be worth salvaging. When applied to a movie like Tetro, there’s something more poignant; based on his filmography, Coppola clearly know how to spin a yarn. But this is his second film (following 2007’s poorly received Youth Without Youth) after a decade-long absence from filmmaking, and he’s clearly still re-learning the ropes (a fact he’s as much as admitted to in interviews). As a visualist, he’s never been sharper. Now he just needs to get his storytelling back up to snuff.
"Tetro" is now playing in limited release.