Thursday, June 10, 2010
As I was watching Francis Ford Coppola’s Tetro I was reminded at just how stale and stagnate most modern American films have become. It wasn’t because I thought that Tetro was necessarily a major masterpiece, although I do think it's Coppola’s best since Dracula, but there was just such a real sense of pleasure in watching a modern American film built by shots and not by cuts. Tetro is bold, adventurous and absolutely daring filmmaking controlled by Coppola’s old school mastery of the camera. Even towards the end, when Tetro starts collapsing in on itself, I had a smile on my face at I marveled at the intelligence and skill found in every frame.
Starring Vincent Gallo, Maribel Verdu and Alden Ehrenreich, Tetro marks the second film of Coppola’s welcome return to feature length filmmaking after Youth Without Youth. Shot in the kind of exquisite black and white that helped make his Rumble Fish such a resonate experience, Tetro has been called Coppola’s most autobiographical film and, even at its most flawed, it burns the way only true personal visions can. It doesn’t just feel like we a watching a film from one of our last great remaining masters, but that we are getting a glimpse inside his soul and it makes for a very moving experience.
Coppola himself scripts the ambitious story of Tetro, an aging writer spiritually torn apart by the memory of his mother who was killed in an accident he caused and his overbearing father who is a world famous composer. In his fifth decade as a filmmaker, Coppola shows himself as an artist still capable of pushing the boundaries of what great cinema is and, in its best moments, Tetro is as great as anything Coppola has ever delivered. At its weakest it is as scattershot as Coppola’s most flawed experiments, but perhaps the most enduring thing about Tetro is Coppola’s willingness at this stage of the game to still risk making a fool of himself. Tetro is Francis in daring One From the Heart mode again, a filmmaker bravely not making a work for the masses but for himself.
For Tetro, Coppola brings together two of the world’s most distinctive actors and faces in all of modern cinema, Vincent Gallo and Maribel Verdu. Both deliver for the seventy year old director brilliantly. As Tetro, Gallo has never been more controlled or studied. Coppola bravely allows Gallo to interject aspects of his own personality into the role but this is a portrait of Gallo as a great actor and not just a remarkable personality. He’s moving in the role and Tetro stands as the best work he has delivered for a director other than himself.
Verdu is equally captivating as Tetro’s sole supporter through thick and thin and the haunting Spanish actress is the film’s hidden weapon. Whether it is here or in Y Tu Mama Tambien or Pan’s Labyrinth, the beautiful Verdu injects her roles with a real sense of life and purpose and she is thrilling to watch here, especially in her scenes with Gallo where their two naturally opposing styles compliment each other beautifully. Like their characters in the film, Gallo and Verdu seem to feed off each other and it’s a pleasure to watch them work together.
Newcomer Alden Ehrenreich is solid as Tetro’s younger brother and Klaus Maria Brandauer is chilling as the father who controls everything around him with his ego and greed. Also worth noting is statuesque Argentian born Leticia Bredice who manages to lighten the rather heavy mood of Tetro everytime she appears on the screen.
While the fact that we have Coppola back as a filmmaker is well worth celebrating, there is no denying that Tetro is a flawed film. Overlong and at times sluggishly paced, Tetro is a film that for all of its greatness has moments that fall falt or simply don’t work. These flaws are finally pretty enduring, and more than forgivable, though as they are due to Coppola’s ambition and willingness to experiment. Tetro is the work of a filmmaker that really cares and, as in One From the Heart, its passion redeems its mistakes.
Tetro is represented fairly well on DVD and contains a beautiful looking picture (which really highlights the extraordinary photography of cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr.), a commentary by Francis and about 45 minutes worth of behind the scenes footage. It's a beautifully flawed film that had moments that captivated me more than any work I had seen in quite awhile. Whether Francis Ford Coppola will continue directing more films remains to be seen but, for now, I am just grateful to have him back.