Francis Ford Coppola is out of the giant, make-or-break blockbuster biz and back making small indie movies for the sheer joy of it. His newest, Tetro, is such an adventure in technique, style, and pure cinematic brio, it almost doesn’t matter that the story gets away from him the fourth act, and the film runs about 30 minutes too long. You can have too much of a good thing, and the sins of admission in Tetro detract from otherwise masterful storytelling, but there’s still plenty of swoony delight to be had in the look of the film and the operatic scope of its story.
Shot mostly in brooding, shimmering black and white, the story begins with dewy young American Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich), military school dropout and cruise ship busboy, arriving in Buenos Aires in the dead of night to visit his prodigal brother, Tetro (Vincent Gallo), a failed writer. Bennie was a child when Tetro left home to follow his muse, after their renowned composer father (played in flashback by the great Klaus Maria Brandauer) told him there was only room for one genius in the family. For the few days that his ship undergoes repairs, Bennie tries to reconnect with the prickly older brother who wants nothing more to do with their family. A father-sons drama of near-Biblical proportions (lust, betrayals, guilty secrets) unfolds against Tetro’s life with his warm and grounded girlfriend, Miranda (Maribel Verdu), and their bohemian artist friends, as Bennie probes for answers about their fractured family. Coppola injects dramatic revelations into the story in spasms of saturated color created in homage to the lush, slightly berserk Technicolor dance melodramas of the great Robert Powell (The Red Shoes). Snippets from Powell’s “Tales Of Hoffmann” are featured in Tetro, and Coppola stages a few more dances-within-the-film of his own to express the characters’ unspoken sorrows. This works beautifully on an emotional as well as visual level; the film is a pleasure to watch, even during a lengthy detour to an arts festival in Patagonia that eats up too much time and contributes nothing that might not have been more effectively inserted elsewhere in the film. Still, a mesmerizing performance from the ever-iconoclastic Gallo, and terrific support from accomplished Spanish actress Verdu and newcomer Ehrenreich, along with the vivacity of Coppola’s filmmaking, make Tetro a cinematic feast to be savored. (Not rated) 127 minutes. (3 1/2 stars out of 4)