J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Coppola’s Tetro

Francis Ford Coppola would like to introduce you to La Boca, the Buenos Aires neighborhood with a storied history as an artist colony and the traditional home of the city’s Italian immigrant community. It is easy to understand how its old world heritage and bohemian spirit would appeal to Coppola, serving as a distinctive backdrop to his latest family drama, Tetro (trailer here), which has an unconventional midweek New York and Los Angles opening this Thursday, in honor of the birthday of Coppola’s father.

In truth, Tetro seems like a strange paternal tribute considering it presents such poisoned father-son relationships. Carlo Tetrocini might be a great conductor, but he has been a lousy father. For reasons initially shrouded in mystery, the oldest son Angie ran away from home, leaving behind Benny, the kid brother who idolizes him. As soon as he looks old enough (barely), Benny takes a job as a cruise ship waiter to follow his brother’s example. When the ship docks in Buenos Aires for repairs, Benny sets off in search of his prodigal brother, but finds him less than welcoming. Now simply known as Tetro, the elder Tetrocini brother is coldly dismissive of Benny, but at least his sympathetic girlfriend Miranda does her best to console the disappointed brother.

Snooping around the flat, Benny finds a suitcase full of Tetro’s unfinished stories, which seem to hold clues to the Tetrocini family’s secrets. Again due to the influence of his long absent brother, Benny also harbors literary ambitions and sees genius in his brother’s furtive work. However, Tetro’s stories and the truth they conceal might ultimately divide the brothers permanently.

Tetro is a lovingly crafted, stylistically distinctive film, featuring the striking black-and-white cinematography of Mihai Malamaire, Jr. In a deliberate reversal of customary practice, Coppola reserves the use of color photography solely for flashback scenes, which gives them a strange vitality, emphasizing their continuing influence on the characters’ present lives.

Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov’s lush symphonic score effectively combines a myriad of influences, including traditional Argentine musical forms, including milonga, the predecessor to the tango, and features Dawn Upshaw as his vocal soloist. Unfortunately, the story itself, Coppola’s first original screenplay in thirty years, is often burdened with obscure motivations and a parade of barely distinguishable minor characters.

For his Italian and Argentine characters, Coppola recruited an international cast, the most famous being Vincent Gallo as Tetro, whose unsettling screen presence well suits the haunted title character. The Austrian Klaus Maria Brandauer will also be recognizable as the Mephistophelean father. Rounding out the damaged Tetrocini family, American newcomer Alden Ehrenreich is surprisingly effective as Benny, bearing a strong physical resemblance to Leonardo Dicaprio, but displaying greater emotional directness and far less affectation in his performance than typically seen from the Blood Diamond star.

Tetro is an ambitious work, even incorporating an original ballet choreographed by Ana Maria Stekelman, in homage to the films of Powell & Pressburger. Coppola’s legions of admirers will be relieved to learn Tetro is a pretty engaging film, but it is not the new masterpiece they are still waiting and hoping for. However, Coppola addresses themes of family and artistic development in such a dark, psychologically tempestuous context, it will be impossible to ignore the film in any serious study of his work. Though at times it borders on outright melodrama, Tetro is consistently fascinating viewing. It opens in New York at the Sunshine Cinema this Thursday.

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