Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen currently have films in release. Why is this significant? Both men are prominent directors in their seventies who, it can be argued, made their seminal films during the 1970s. Both have just released what can be called “late career movies.” In addition each contributed a segment, along with Martin Scorsese, to “New York Stories” (1989).
While Allen’s film, “Whatever Works,” covers familiar territory, “Tetro” has Coppola moving in new directions while embracing digital film making and taking creative advantage of the medium. To begin with, no Coppola film can be considered typically “Coppola,” as the director’s works are always marked by their individuality. For example, just from the films themselves, no one would think “The Godfather” (1972) and “Apocalypse Now” (1979) were made by the same director.
In “Tetro” Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich) has come to Buenos Aires to find his long last brother Angie, who now calls himself Tetro (Vincent Gallo). Tetro was a promising writer who no longer writes and who is less than thrilled to see his brother. Eventually a family history involving their orchestra conductor father, nicely played by Klaus Maria Branduaer, is unearthed, while Bennie writes a play based on Tetro’s hidden writings about their family.
In “Tetro” Coppola takes a family melodrama and dresses it in a variety of styles from film noir to the surreal, combining black and white images with color segments and utilizing multi-layered images. The present day section of the film has been shot in anamorphic (very wide screen) black and white, a beautiful format hardly used anymore. The color segments, used for flashbacks and fantasy sequences, are shot in a regular wide screen aspect ratio (1.85), not as wide as the black and white sections.
Not only does Coppola know how to compose for the wide screen but he has taken advantage of the digital tool box now available to film makers and utilizes it in a way that is emotionally appropriate to the story. I found this particularly interesting considering the director’s innovative use of non-digital, in-camera effects and effects created by forced perspectives in movies like “Tucker: The Man and His Dream” (1988) and “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (1993). All of which brings me to my only issue with “Tetro,” which is its story telling.
The narrative, while employing beautiful, innovative imagery, is convoluted, drawn out and, at points, difficult to follow, making the story less satisfying and the dramatic tension spotty. Even Coppola’s more off beat or fantastic films such as “The Conversation” (1974) and “Rumble Fish” (1983) had narratives that were more cohesive and compelling than “Tetro.”.
I enjoy seeing Coppola forge ahead at this point in his career, embracing new technologies and ways of story telling. Now that he has gone to a certain point experimentally, I think that he needs to dial back a bit and find a happy medium for telling stories in a more straight forward manner while, at the same time, not hamper his creative spirit.
Tetro, director Francis Ford Coppola, 2009,
American Zoetrope, 127 minutes, not rated
“Tetro” is playing at Landmark’s Sunshine Theatre, 143 Houston Street