Is this the one—a long-awaited new classic from the master? Close enough. Tetro expands on the buoyant sensations of writer-director Francis Ford Coppola’s previous film—the origins-of-language love story Youth Without Youth (2007)—even as its twists and turns feel less spontaneous, more pro forma. This is a straight-hewn sins-of-the-father tale (a Coppola old reliable) that is at times dulled by its narrative inevitabilities. But though there’s less improvisatory wonder, it’s a small price to pay for the sight of a revivified artist expressing his lifelong obsessions with supreme control and confidence.
Coppola introduces Tetro (Gallo) gazing intently at an irradiant desk lamp, a sense-stirring bauble that attracts both his deer-in-the-headlights stare and an agitatedly buzzing moth. Sight and sound intermingle, as do past and present—whatever this self-exiled artist is remembering is more than vaguely unpleasant, yet complicated by memory’s haze. Tetro’s subconscious knot is fervently shared with his younger brother, Bennie (Ehrenreich), who has sought out his long-lost sibling while on furlough in Argentina.
Bennie, in his gleaming Querelle-esque sailor suit, is all easily corruptible innocence, but Tetro treats him with a coldness born of harsh experience. The brothers’ highly regarded yet exceedingly cruel composer father, Carlo (Klaus Maria Brandauer), nearly quashed his eldest son’s artistic aspirations. Because of this, Tetro’s rejection of Bennie comes off as a futile attempt to ward off conflict by preserving the younger man’s purity. Yet the blows and betrayals must come—this is a Coppola film, after all. The conduit is Tetro’s unfinished autobiographical novel, written in code and hidden away in a battered suitcase, which Bennie discovers and takes upon himself to complete.
Coppola excels at what might be termed the cinema of inadequacy. His great theme is the failure of a given era’s generational elite to live up to the examples of their forebears, however reprehensible the accomplishments. Carlo bedevils his son like Mr. Scratch does Daniel Webster, but he’s only part of a much larger problem. It’s the arts themselves that weigh on Tetro, from the aria that his mother (Adriana Mastrngelo) sings in the final moments of her life to the Powell-Pressburger film (The Tales of Hoffman) that he watches with Bennie in more stable times.
Gallo’s soft, breathy voice and hunched, heroin-chic frame belie the unpredictable intensity that simmers just out of sight. He’s the perfect performer to realize Coppola’s intentions. It’s frightening when this hollow-eyed thespian erupts, but he’s even more daunting in silence, when merely looking about, as he does here, with a potent mixture of awe and uncertainty.
His character’s journey is mostly one of retreat, of movement away from the blinding glare of the divine to the more private, darkened spaces of the self. It all comes back to light: Whether emanating from a common desk lamp or glimmering off the reflective Patagonia mountains, light is Tetro’s mock-mystical albatross. It teases and tortures him, promises revelation where none can be had—a fascinating reversal-cum-perversion of cinema’s tendency toward redemption and illumination. This often rugged struggle is mirrored in Mihai Malaimare’s simultaneously attractive and repellent hi-def cinematography, which shifts between a widescreen black-and-white present of deceptive luminosity and a window-boxed--color past heavy with murky grain.
Tetro is hyperengaged with this tactile world around him, but he slowly comes to realize that there is little satisfaction and even less comfort to be had in his artistic and familial experiences. This is an awareness that Coppola himself has attained, having had his fair share of peaks and valleys in both life and career. Some have called Tetro a return to form, but it’s more the work of a man who has gone over the proverbial edge and lived to tell about it. Much like Tetro and Bennie in the film’s final scene, Coppola has been swallowed whole by darkness and yet attained a necessary clarity that may otherwise have evaded him. It could be said, strangely enough, that the abyss was never so enlightening.
Tetro opens Thu 11 at Landmark Sunshine. Find showtimes