Early on in Francis Ford Coppola’s shimmering, mesmerizing Tetro, a young man on his way to meet up with his eccentric older brother walks down a stark, shadowy street, past a graffiti-defaced wall. The setting is Buenos Aires, not Tulsa, and the score is grand and symphonic, not percussive and spare.
But the evocation of Rumble Fish — Coppola’s only other black-and-white film since he became famous and the most experimental and daring picture he directed within the Hollywood studio system — cannot be a coincidence. Tetro is, in many ways, a thematic and spiritual cousin to Rumble Fish, another tale of an innocent who idolizes his older brother and craves his affection more than he should.
But Tetro, based on Coppola’s first original screenplay since 1974’s The Conversation, is an even more theatrical and dreamy work. Eighteen-year-old Bennie (hugely gifted newcomer Alden Ehrenreich), a cruise-ship waiter, comes to Argentina to track down his brother Angelo (Vincent Gallo), who ran away from home to escape the rule of their famous conductor father (Klaus Maria Brandauer) and never returned.
Angelo, who now calls himself Tetro (a shortened version of the family surname), is not entirely pleased to see his baby brother. Living in exile with his patient girlfriend (a marvelous Maribel Verdu), Tetro wants nothing to do with his former self. A failed writer with an unfinished play tucked away in the closet and some big secrets tucked inside his head, he would rather keep his past life buried and doesn’t seem all that interested in creating a new one.
Youth Without Youth, Coppola’s previous film, marked the end of his self-imposed retirement and was suffocated by artsiness and pseudo-philosophizing: The movie was an ambitious, dreary bore. Tetro, one of the most beautifully shot films of the year (the cinematographer is Mihai Malaimare Jr.), has a story rife with Oedipal and Freudian subtexts and anchored in sudsy, hoary melodrama. The causes of Tetro’s inner torment, once revealed, strive for the operatic but achieve only histrionics. The ending, too, is a bit of a thud.
But what a grand and dazzling route Coppola takes to get there! Tetro sporadically bursts into eye-popping color for some glorious fantasy ballet sequences and snippets from The Tales of Hoffman, and it is peppered with small character moments (such as a convertible ride to Patagonia with two flirty, cackling, vivacious women) as vibrant as any scene Coppola has directed. The actors appear energized by the opportunity to work with Coppola — even the normally reptilian Gallo seems more human than usual — and the performances hold you even when the movie around them does not.
Tetro is deeply flawed, messily structured and not entirely satisfying, but it’s a vivid and intoxicating piece of cinema — for better and worse, liberated from all the usual Hollywood mandates. When Angelo stares down Argentina’s most influential critic (Carmen Maura) and says “Your opinion doesn’t matter to me any more,” you can imagine Coppola behind the camera, smiling and nodding.
Cast: Vincent Gallo, Alden Ehrenreich, Maribel Verdu, Klaus Maria Brandauer, Rodrigo De La Serna, Carmen Maura.
Writer-director-producer: Francis Ford Coppola.
An Emerging Pictures release. Running time: 127 minutes. Vulgar language, nudity, sexual situations, adult themes. Plays at 7 and 9:15 p.m. Friday at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. Coppola will participate in a live webcast Q&A following a screening of The Conversation at 2 p.m. Saturday. For details, visit www.mbcinema.com