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The Globe and Mail

Tetro: Coppola's best since Apocalypse Now

Vincent Gallo, left, Alden Ehrenreich in Tetro, which Coppola describes as autobiographical: ‘Nothing in this movie ever really happened, but it’s all true.

3 out of 4 stars



  • Written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola
  • Starring Vincent Gallo, Alden Ehrenreich, Maribel Verdú and Klaus Maria Brandauer
  • Classification: NA

Francis Ford Coppola always had an eye for casting. Paramount wanted Robert Redford for Michael Corleone in The Godfather . Aghast, Coppola surreptitiously filmed Michael's scenes with an unknown, Al Pacino, gambling the studio would be won over. Even a minor Coppola work, The Outsiders , is alive with fresh faces (Matt Dillon, Tom Cruise and Diane Lane).

In his latest, the mesmerizing rookie is Alden Ehrenreich, a 20-year-old who resembles Orson Welles when the filmmaker was still a boy genius cloaked in puppy fat.

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Mind you, all Coppola's work has been minor since his spellbinding 1970s run - The Godfather movies, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now . That's because Coppola suffered a breakdown chasing the Great American Film up river in Apocalypse Now . Or so the story goes. Post crack-up, he's only been capable of assembly-line work - routine genre stuff such as Peggy Sue Got Married .

Tetro offers another mythology: The three-decade slump is his family's fault. Coppola's new film is, he says, autobiographical. "Nothing in this movie ever really happened, but it's all true," he reported in Cannes.

If that's so, we can presume that the Coppolas, like the Corleones, kept a mortician on call full time. Tetro begins with 17-year-old Bennie Tetrocini (Ehrenreich) spilling from a luxury liner in Buenos Aries in search of his violently temperamental sibling, Tetro (Vincent Gallo). Big brother quit America after his opera-singer mother died in a car crash, a tragedy that turned his father, a famous conductor, into a mad man.

Tetro, we learn, drove the car that killed his mother. The old man retaliated. Tetro hoped to write a book destroying his tormentor, but abandoned the project, deciding silence was the appropriate response. To get back at an artistic genius, Tetro threw away his own creative talent.

Now, Bennie has found Tetro's unfinished novel and wants to turn it into an opera - unless big brother kills him, or one of the speeding cars that always seems to be plowing down Tetrocinis, gets him first.

Tetro is Coppola's best film since Apocalypse Now because the filmmaker has abandoned conventional drama - what for him had become a straitjacket - indulging in a collage style that allows him to honour favourite filmmakers.

The high-contrast, black-and-white opening on the Buenos Aires seafront is homage to Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront, while the lurid musical sequences, most in throbbing colour, remind us of Vincent Minnelli and Michael Powell (clips of Powell's Tales of Hoffman are thrown in). Film references abound - a framed shot of Robert Mitchum from Night of the Hunter and a book on director Robert Aldrich ( Kiss Me Deadly ) decorate Tetro's apartment.

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While Coppola seems revitalized by quoting from movies he studied at UCLA film school, what ultimately makes Tetro so compelling is the filmmaker's return to the motifs that made his 1970s films powerful.

Born into a competitive musical family (his father and uncle were composers), Coppola was undaunted by the challenge of a mobster movie. The Godfather explored material he knew - family, ambition, conspiracy and survival. These themes are the very pulse of Tetro . And the film's plot - an innocent volunteer risks hazardous waters to find a dangerously crazy older brother - is right out of Apocalypse Now .

Unfortunately, Coppola is not as successful profiling the dangerously crazy older brother as he is the innocent volunteer. Newcomer Ehrenreich is a sweetly seductive careerist who hides ambition with a sunny smile. He lights up the screen impersonating a junior varsity Michael Corleone.

The film's conspicuous failure is the title character, played by Vincent Gallo ( Buffalo '66 ). Tetro is a violent recluse - three-quarters Sonny, one-quarter Fredo Corleone. The tortured artist is also, presumably, the stand-in for Coppola, The Great Artist Who Stopped Trying. The only problem is Tetro onscreen is often a chore to endure.

Hearing the haunted Tetro whine and complain, we're reminded of the scene in The Godfather when Don Vito Corleone receives the failed, self-pitying singer Johnny Fontaine in his office. "What can I do?" Fontaine blubbers.

"You can act like a man!" the Godfather thunders, before asking a telling question:

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"Is this what Hollywood has done to you?"

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