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MOVIE REVIEW

Tetro

Legendary director injects "Tetro,'' a family melodrama, with charm

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By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / June 19, 2009
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Were it some unknown director’s first movie or some great director’s last, Francis Ford Coppola’s “Tetro’’ would be either auspicious or loosely august. But alas, Coppola, who at 70 seems far from his beginnings and not terribly close to the end, brings with each new film the baggage of having once been himself.

It’s been duly noted that greatness has remained out of Coppola’s reach. For 30 years, his former brilliance has been the bane of his career, but not necessarily his directing, which, with a few exceptions (we’ll say it together: “Jack’’) has had exceptional moments. During the second half of “Tetro,’’ which has been digitally photographed in crisp, expressionistic black-and-white, Coppola resumes the voluptuous filmmaking that used to come so naturally to him. The movie begins as a mildly involving melodrama about the mostly housebound reunion of two estranged brothers, and it gets better as it goes.

The elder is Tetro (Vincent Gallo), a failed writer and occasional mental patient who’s run away from his father, a renowned conductor named Carlo Tetrocini (Klaus Maria Brandauer). Tetro has run all the way to Buenos Aires, where he and his former doctor, Miranda (Maribel Verdú), share an apartment. They get a visit from his younger brother Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich), an itinerant young man with the face of a toddler (it’s Leonardo DiCaprio’s squint and baby fat on younger apple cheeks). Bennie says he’s run off from military school and has been waiting tables on a cruise ship. While the boat is docked in Argentina, Bennie takes the opportunity to drop in and probe Tetro for information about their father.

For reasons that become clear much later, having needy little Bennie around exasperates Tetro, provides Miranda with something fun to do, and allows the story to flashback, in color, to the years when young Tetro lived to defy his father. What emerges from all of this earns only scant interest. Partly because, like Tetro, Coppola still isn’t much of a dramatic writer; though mostly because Gallo, while undeniably a drama queen, still isn’t much of a star. Coppola has allowed him to repeat his lines until, maybe, they start to mean something. (“You made changes? You made changes? You made changes? Changes? You made changes?’’) If Gallo is a method actor, he’s been home-schooled.

The black-and-white sequences make the movie look old, although maybe not as old as Coppola might have been going for. Its charm and loose whimsy are more early Jim Jarmusch than Vittorio De Sica. It’s neat to pretend that Coppola’s career could have begun on a shoestring in the early 1980s. “Tetro’’ looks more polished than an early Jarmusch film. It’s more inert, too.

But the movie gathers strength once it leaves the apartment. Bennie becomes consumed with completing a stage adaptation of Tetro’s unfinished novel, which he manually wrote backward while in the mental institution. The play, a surrealist sex-doozy, winds up winning a slot in a prestigious Patagonia arts festival. Not only does the news thrill Bennie and introduce the comically carnal tag team of Leticia Brédice and Sofía Castiglione as two actors in Bennie’s play (and two seducers of Bennie), it inspires Coppola to rediscover magnificence in himself.

The shadows of Coppola’s former self have their moments of beauty, truth, or divine excess. In the last year, the entrepreneurial tragedy of 1988’s auto-industry saga “Tucker: A Man and His Dream’’ seems like Crayola-colored prophecy. Coppola managed to make Kathleen Turner into a soulful Judy Holliday rather than Lauren Bacall warmed over in “Peggy Sue Got Married’’ (1986). “Bram Stoker’s Dracula’’ (1992) is the closest schlock will ever get to opera, farce, and erotica. And if you’ve been wondering why Earth’s adolescent sexual energy has been so dried up at the movies, it’s because Coppola depleted Hollywood’s natural resource in 1983 to make both “Rumble Fish’’ and “The Outsiders.’’ (It’s him we should thank for Zac Efron, the Prius of pinups.)

For 30 years, what we’ve been looking for in any new movie from Coppola is proof that he still has “It.’’ In “Tetro,’’ I would offer the road trip the brothers take with Miranda and the two actresses as an affirmative. Their drive with the top down across the country, including stopovers, is funny and strange, emotional, sensual, and visually alive. The five actors have a kind of connection, even though it looks as though Brédice and Castiglione are doing most of the work, especially during a hot tub scene. Sunlight strobes off the Patagonian glaciers. Carmen Maura hosts the festival in a pair of giant sunglasses. And every now and then the film cuts away to a man and woman dancing in a silent-movie ballet. Those are sexy, surreal, and ultimately dolorous passages that, eventually, culminate in an operatic family-gothic set during a funeral.

What makes all of this so rapturous is how the sensation in these scenes comes more from the touching oddness of Coppola’s vision than the characters themselves. Even before the road trip, the movie, which Mihai Malaimare Jr. shot, has a field day with shadow and light. The sounds and images here are the story. Latin America isn’t just a location for Coppola. It’s a sincerely whimsical cinematic touchstone. He’s under the spell of Alfonso Cuarón, Luis Buñuel, and Pedro Almodóvar, for starters. But, really, he’s finding exciting new parts of himself. The life-support beeps that show up on the soundtrack are a nice sonic garnish. They’re also terribly premature. Coppola is still very much alive.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/ae/movienation.

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TETRO

Written and directed by: Francis Ford Coppola

Starring: Vincent Gallo, Alden Ehrenreich, Maribel Verdú, Klaus Maria Brandauer, and Carmen Maura

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 127 minutes

Unrated

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