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Francis Ford Coppola gestures during an interview in Buenos Aires, the setting for his film Tetro.

Natacha Pisarenko

No film director anticipates bad reviews, but sometimes they have intimations.

Certainly, it was no surprise to Francis Ford Coppola when Tetro, his new feature - which opened in the United States in June - was greeted by a loud chorus of criticism. The box-office performance wasn't exactly robust either; by Aug. 2, the film had managed to gross barely more than $1-million (U.S.) worldwide, an almost shocking statistic given the five-time Oscar winner's reputation.

"My whole career has been like that," Coppola said philosophically, on the phone from California before Tetro's Canadian opening this week. "I make films out of the mould. Certain kinds of films do well with big audiences, but if you go your own way, if it's out of the ordinary, you're likely to get strong reactions, both positive and negative."

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Within any family, when one guy becomes successful, there are going to be hurt feelings.

The negative formulations of deadline-driven movie critics don't faze him. The two pinnacles of his film career, he notes - The Godfather and Apocalypse Now - were both largely dismissed when they first appeared, and only later embraced as cinematic landmarks. "So I'm used to this," he says. "Only as time goes by do they become more lenient." Which is another way of saying that history, he hopes, will be kinder to his ambitions than his contemporaries have been.

And Tetro is certainly ambitious. Although made for a modest $15-million (U.S.) (financed entirely by Coppola himself, from the profits of his wine and Central American resort enterprises), it's an operatic 127-minute family saga.

It was shot largely in black and white, and principally in Buenos Aires, where he lived for 15 months.

For Coppola, now a portly 70 years old, Tetro represents a throw of the dice in any number of ways.

It's only his second film in 12 years (2007's low-key Youth Without Youth came a decade after the more commercial The Rainmaker in 1997). It's the first time he's directed from his own script since The Conversation, with Gene Hackman, 35 years ago. His stars include at least two actors of unproven provenance: Buffalo native Vincent Gallo, as noted for his music and his painting as for his acting, and said to be difficult to handle; and newcomer Alden Ehrenreich, a 19-year-old New York University drama student who looks like a young Leonardo DiCaprio and was discovered at a bat mitzvah party in Los Angeles by Steven Spielberg five years ago. The female lead, who plays Gallo's partner, is Maribel Verdu, well-known from her appearance in Y Tu Mama Tambien.

Discussing his acting choices, Coppola explained that he had originally intended to cast Matt Dillon in the role of Tetro, a brilliant American writer who has excommunicated his family and fled to a bohemian existence in Argentina. At the last minute, a conflict developed with Dillon's schedule and Coppola chose Gallo ( Brown Bunny). "I had never seen Gallo's work, and he's controversial, but I liked him. I found him very bright. He gave me 100 per cent and was a good collaborator."

Ehrenreich plays Tetro's younger brother, Bennie. Devastated by Tetro's departure, he tracks him down in Buenos Aires, determined to uncover the family's long-suppressed secrets. "It's hard to find a [teenage]actor with the kind of emotional maturity that Alden has."

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Thematically, Tetro is a film very close to home for Coppola - and deliberately so. His previous film, Youth Without Youth - based on a novel by Romanian Mircea Eliade - was almost an intellectual exercise, a discourse on time and consciousness. Coppola said he wanted Tetro to touch a more emotional nerve and, to do that, he tapped the source material he knew best, his own family.

The film's story line thus mirrors aspects of his own biography - a tale of two generations of sibling rivalry in a family of creative artists.

In the film, in both generations, the younger brother eventually supplants the elder, becoming the superior talent.

In Coppola's own family, it's hard to find a relative not immersed in some aspect of the arts. His father (flutist/arranger/composer) Carmine and uncle (opera conductor) Antonio were both musicians. His older brother, August, is a professor of comparative literature (and father of actor Nicolas Cage); his younger sister is actress Talia Shire (the mother of actor Jason Schwartzman). Coppola's own children are also in the business: Daughter Sofia ( Lost in Translation) is a director and son Roman a filmmaker, and his late son, Gian-Carlo, who died in a tragic boating accident in 1986, was a film producer.

"Within any family," says Coppola, "when one guy becomes successful, there are going to be hurt feelings." The reverse, he adds, also applies - schadenfreude, the pleasure one derives when a rival fails.

As in Tetro, the young Francis idolized his elder brother, happily soaking up a rich cultural education.

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That included some pretty exotic movie fare, such as the Tales of Hoffmann, a 1951 British adaptation of the Offenbach opera. In the film, Bennie says to Tetro, "Everything I love I learned from you."

But Coppola isn't simply excavating the deep, love-hate well of fraternal competition. He's also interested in the gap that separates artistic and intellectual achievement from human compassion.

"I've learned that in my life," he says. "Great genius does not always translate into generosity and bigness of spirit. Picasso, for example. Mean to his kids." Other examples abound, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Bertolt Brecht, from Richard Wagner to Ernest Hemingway - all, at the human level, monsters of a kind. Culture, he seems to be saying, cannot save you.

In the film, Tetro's symphony-conductor father, played by Austrian actor Klaus Maria Brandauer ( Mephisto), tells his talented son, 'there's only room for one genius in this family," and then steals his girlfriend. Adds Coppola, with a chuckle: "You need a good villainous father to get a story going."

These issues have clearly been preoccupying him for some time. Rummaging through some old material a few years ago, he found half a page of writing about a man staring into lights - words he'd written three decades earlier - a visual metaphor that recurs in the finished film. "And then I thought, what if the brother I knew had to make it out of the country. Which country? Well, I needed a country with a favourable exchange rate. Thus, Argentina, although it also has a great theatrical and musical tradition." While shooting Youth without Youth in Romania, Coppola wrote the Tetro script on weekends.

Blessed with a measure of financial independence, Coppola says he plans to continue making quality films. "I'm hoping this will be like a second career for me," he says. "I still have a lot to learn."

Of his own decade-long retreat from directing after The Rainmaker in 1997, Coppola insists that "it was the movie business that changed, not me. It left me." Now, he says, "They're making films for audiences that have been brainwashed by 50 years of network TV."

The decline of quality is not confined to cinema. "We were raised in a garden of cultural greatness," he says, "and now there are just so many weeds."

Or, as Bennie says to Tetro in another context, "What's happened to our family?"

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