Tetro, Francis Ford Coppola’s first original screenplay in 30 years, has been hailed by some as a return to form. Although it is not in the same class as the four films he made in the 1970s (The Conversation , The Godfather Parts 1 and 2 [1972-1974] and Apocalypse Now  all regularly feature in all-time greatest film lists), it is reminiscent of some of his more interesting work from the following decade, particularly Rumble Fish, The Outsiders (both 1983) and One from the Heart (1982). Like the former, it is beautifully shot in high-contrast black and white.
Although Coppola’s writing credits are impressive - deservedly winning an Oscar for the brilliant Patton (Franklin J Schaffner, 1970) and co-writing The Godfather - it is the script that proves to be Tetro‘s flaw. It is an over-egged Freudian/Oedipal melodrama about an artistic Italian-American family, the Tetrocinis, and the effects of its dominating patriarch (Klaus Maria Brandauer grandly stating, ‘There’s only room for one genius in this family’), which has had everyone drawing comparisons with the Coppola clan (although who is supposed to represent Carmine, Francis, Sophia or Nic Cage is not exactly clear).
Set in Buenos Aires, the film centres on two brothers: a world-weary, beaten beatnik writer (Vincent Gallo in the title role) and his innocent younger brother Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich symbolically dressed in a pure white seaman’s uniform at the outset), who tries to discover why the talented brother he had grown up idolising is hiding from his family in Argentina and seems to have given up on his dream of becoming a writer.
As we meet Tetro’s quirky group of friends, a scene of an angry girlfriend cutting up Armani suits and smashing guitars sent worrying messages that we might be entering that same cliché-ridden ‘life among those passionate Latins and artists’ world presented to us by that other fading star of the 1970s, Woody Allen, in Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008). Luckily, such scenes do not dominate Tetro. What we have instead is an old-fashioned soapy plot that is somehow just too melodramatic to be engaging. And although Pedro Almodí³var has proved time and again that such a mix of stylish filmmaking and melodrama can work in the 21st century, Coppola is less successful with the blend here. Mostly because the film demands that we take the overblown drama seriously.
However, in most other aspects the film proves its worth. The performances are strong throughout. Vincent Gallo rises to operatic intensity to deliver a perfect hammy Dean/Brando impression that outshines both Matt Dillon and Mickey Rourke in Coppola’s SE Hinton adaptations. Maribel Verdíº somehow holds the film together despite being a modern woman stuck in a 50s melodrama, and Alden Ehrenreich is a revelation - a C Thomas Howell for the 2010s (if one is needed).
As the drama moves from the mildly preposterous - Bennie discovering his brother’s magnum opus in a suitcase and finding that it was written in a secret code that can be read using a mirror - to full-blown ballet sequences, Coppola, who has never been known for subtlety, piles on the heavy metaphors. He might not be using the entire Vietnam War to show the corruption of the human soul here but costumes (dark glasses, leather jackets, plaster casts) and scenery (towering glaciers, glaring headlights) are all used ‘poetically’ to show the emotional and psychological depth of the characters.
Although the times when a film being ‘personal’ was seen as a sign of quality and of a ‘true artist at work’ are long gone, Coppola’s authorship here transcends the obvious autobiographical aspects. Visually, so much is borrowed that it could be argued that Coppola is more ‘pasticheur’ than ‘auteur’ but what shines through as personal is the director’s deep love of cinema. It is a film that seems more cinematic than his other works (if that is possible). Coppola himself credits the influence of Elia Kazan, whose blend of stylish location-based realism with the theatrical (as in Baby Doll  and On the Waterfront ) is certainly apparent in Tetro. This belief in the power of filmmaking and love of cinema (an excerpt of Powell and Pressburger’s Tales of Hoffman  is even included in the film) stands to remind us of why Coppola, along with Spielberg, Bogdanovic and Scorsese, earned the collective moniker ‘the movie-brat generation’.
Tetro may be pretentious and bombastic but there is also much to enjoy. It is a beautiful film - the contribution of cinematographer Mihai Malamaire is every bit as vital as Vittore Storare’s work on One from the Heart and Apocalypse Now. And Tetro stands as proof that Coppola, with an almost stationary camera and nothing more technical than light on film, can still achieve a more stunning visual experience than the 3D CGI of Avatar.