Sunday, June 27, 2010

Review - Tetro

Francis Ford Coppola is in his 70's now but Tetro feels like a young man's film. It is a work overflowing with passion and exuberance, as if made by a director exploring the limits of his own abilities and throwing everything he has into the mix, not a filmmaker with four decades in the industry already behind him. Perhaps Coppola, like the protagonist of his 2007 film Youth Without Youth, was struck by lightning and imbued with a fresh, young spirit that has rejuvenated his artistic soul, or maybe it's simply the fact that financing this small-scale project himself has finally given Coppola the freedom to be the filmmaker he always wanted to be.

Tetro is the first film Coppola has directed from one of his own original screenplays since 1974's The Conversation, and many of the themes that have preoccupied the director throughout his career are present. This is another Coppola tale of familial strife, opening with young cruise line worker Bennie (impressive newcomer Alden Ehrenreich) arriving in Buenos Aires in the hope of reconnecting with his brother Angelo (Vincent Gallo). Years ago, Angelo left the family to escape their domineering father (Klaus Maria Brandauer) and he has now cut all ties with his clan, having reinvented himself as the writer Tetro. "Angie is dead," he tells his brother in no uncertain terms, but at the behest of his girlfriend Miranda (Maribel Verdú), Tetro reluctantly lets his younger sibling stick around for a couple of days. This simple setup allows Coppola to tell a melodramatic story that unfolds with operatic grandeur, but what really struck me with Tetro was less the story being told than the style with which the director tells it.

This is a ravishing piece of filmmaking. Shot by the gifted young cinematographer Mihai Malaimare, who also filmed Youth Without Youth, Tetro's visuals constantly manage to delight and surprise. Filming in black-and-white, Coppola and Malaimare make brilliant use of light and shadows and find sumptuous imagery in the stark contrast between them. Coppola's direction is thrillingly imaginative. From the opening close-up of a moth flitting around an incandescent light bulb, his compositions are daring and inventive: a scene of confrontation with Tetro appearing only in silhouette; the sunlight glinting off his sunglasses; a wonderfully lit production of Faust. If these brilliant, Fellini-esque images weren't enough to satisfy cinephiles, Coppola finds a way to pay tribute to Powell and Pressburger with glorious Technicolor inserts referencing The Tales of Hoffman. On every aesthetic level, Tetro is sensational work of art.

It is only when we dig beneath that surface that we may be inclined to question Tetro's credentials. How you react to the film will depend on your tolerance for the kind of operatic, loopy storytelling Coppola indulges here. The narrative's oedipal themes are writ large and with little subtlety, as are the numerous dramatic ironies (matching leg breaks, for example, or the dramatisation of family traumas in a climactic play), but the director's decision to play his film in such a high emotional register pays off, with the picture's passionate thrust helping to sweep us through some clunky storytelling. The acting helps too, although this is to be expected in a Coppola picture. He has always drawn excellent performances from his cast, and here he helps Vincent Gallo channel his natural abrasive intensity into a compelling characterisation, which contrasts nicely with Alden Ehrenreich's effective underplaying. Throughout the film there are fine character turns, with Maribel Verdú giving a strong, empathetic performance as Tetro's patient partner, and actors such as Carmen Maura, Rodrigo De la Serna and Leticia Brédice popping up on the many unexpected tangents Coppola takes us down.

Many viewers will undoubtedly roll their eyes at Tetro's hysterical climax and gripe that the picture is a good deal longer than it needs to be, but I was rapt throughout, intoxicated by Coppola's vivid, haunting imagery and the turbulent drama. 2010 has been good to the leaders of Hollywood's 70's revolution so far, with Roman Polanski and Martin Scorsese having already made their mark on the year's cinema with The Ghost and Shutter Island. However, while those films simply showed us their directors can still do what we always knew they could do, Francis Ford Coppola has shown us another side to himself and presented us with a picture that's unlike anything else. Coppola has reinvented himself as a completely independent artist, working free from the constraints of Hollywood, and if Tetro is anything to go by, we could be entering a fascinating late period for the director. This is one from the heart, and I adored it.