For a big name director like Francis Ford Coppola, the announcement that he had embarked on a project to be adapted from his first original screenplay in three decades, should have filled one with a sense of great expectation. On the evidence of Tetro, it is clear why audiences approach Coppola with more trepidation than they had during his increasingly distant hey-day. Unfortunately, Tetro – in spite of its sumptuous chiaroscuro cinematography – is by and large a rather bloated, pretentious and uninvolving vanity project.
When Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich) arrives in Argentina to be reunited with his long lost brother Tetro (Vincent Gallo), privately hoping to get answers to some family secrets, he is surprised to discover instead a long lost soul – generously surmised by his saintly-patient girlfriend Miranda (Maribel Verdú) as “a genius with no accomplishments” – who is resolutely opposed to digging up the past.
Tetro is a failed author harbouring an all encompassing inferiority complex having lived in the shadow of his acclaimed-symphony-conductor-genius father – the great Carlo Tetrocini. Unless Tetro confronts the tempestuous relationship that has dominated his entire life it threatens to engulf Bennie’s too with untold consequences. Concurrently, unknownst to Tetro, Bennie unearths his brother’s manuscripts and fashions a play out of them, finally formulating the ending Tetro was never able to write.
The performances are fine given the material, but the self-important air becomes cumbersome long before the first hour has passed, due in part to Gallo’s hammy turn that frequently stretches one’s patience. The inclusion of a thinly veiled Wellesian patriarch whose brilliance smothers his children, and a supporting cast sourced from an assembly of Fellini films, cannot elevate Tetro beyond the mediocrity of its premise, whilst detracting from the success of its other elements – notably the impressive mise-en-scène.
Incorporating contemporary dance, a monochrome palette punctuated by flashbacks shot in colour, campy reinventions of Faust extracts, not to mention shifting between widescreen and box ratio framing, Coppola has certainly stamped the film with ‘art’ credentials that never err in their determination to will the viewer into a frenzy of deconstruction. However, for all its ‘high-intellect’ elements, it’s a film of surprisingly little depth, serving ultimately as a rudimentary example of style over substance – not what one would hope for from the director of The Godfather (1979) and Apocalypse Now (1979).