It's official now. With his latest film, Tetro, a mad fever dream of a family angst drama that plays out like a telenovela on acid, Francis Ford Coppola has become Colonel Kurtz. OK, perhaps I exaggerate a tad. I don't really mean to insinuate that the venerable 70-year old director has literally gone completely around the bend in his new film; but as an artist, it signals that he has come full circle-in a sort of insane fashion. Back in 1963, under the auspices of the famously "no-budget" producer Roger Corman, a then 24-year old Coppola wrote and directed a B & W horror cheapie called Dementia 13. The story revolved around a twisted family with dark secrets; and in one scene I seem to remember one of the family members creeping about the estate wielding an axe. While it's not techinically "horror", one could thumbnail Tetro as a B & W film revolving around a twisted family with dark secrets; and, oddly enough, there is a scene wherein a family member creeps about an estate...wielding an axe.
Coppola has cooked up a Tennessee Williams meets Douglas Sirk family stew (with just a hint of balletic Powell and Pressburger opera tossed in for flavoring). Tetro (Vincent Gallo) is an ex-pat living in Buenos Aires with his therapist turned girlfriend Miranda (Mirabel Verdu). Tetro is a troubled soul; a highly gifted but unpublished writer-poet with a history of mental breakdowns who has willfully estranged himself from his family (for complex reasons that are unraveled in very deliberate, sudsy fashion). He is quite chagrined when an unwelcomed boulder comes smashing through this wall of self-imposed exile in the form of his younger brother Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich), who shows up on his doorstep one day. Bennie, a cruise ship worker whose boat "happens" to be in port, has not seen his big brother for many years and is quite eager to reestablish contact.
Tetro, however, is not inclined to reciprocate. Not only does he make it clear that Bennie is not welcome to stay any longer than is absolutely necessary, but he refuses to refer to him as a relative when introducing him to friends. Undaunted, Bennie remains hell-bent to reconnect, and soon fate and circumstance serve to prolong his visit to Buenos Aires, setting off a chain of events that eventually forces both brothers to come to terms with their shared "Daddy issues" (Klaus Maria Brandauer chews major scenery as their narcissistic father, who is a world-famous symphony conductor... and world-class jerk).
I'm no psychiatrist, but Coppola's dad, Carmine, is a composer/conductor (since I don't know the man, I can't attest to whether or not he is jerk...but I'm just saying). At any rate, this feels like a "personal" work on some level; it virtually screams at you from the passionate, high drama of the piece. It goes without saying that "family" is a recurring theme in Coppola's ouvre; so in that respect, you could say that Tetro is a return to form.
Gallo delivers an explosive performance; I think it's his finest work to date. The charismatic Verdu is very effective inhabiting a character who is at once earthy, sensuous and saintly. Ehrenreich holds his own quite admirably with his more seasoned co-stars. However, I had a problem with the film's over-the-top third act. Even accounting for Coppola's (literally) operatic construct that leads up to the jaw-dropping finale, it's all a bit too...too. Maybe it's me; if you enjoy that sort of thing, perhaps you'll be more forgiving. One cannot deny the visual artistry on display. Even when he lost me with the story, Coppola's mastery of the medium kept my eyes riveted to the screen. So he did his job, after all. He's been doing it for 50 years-so I'll let him off the hook...for old time's sake.