Pity the artist who achieved success at an early age; if he stays around long enough, he'll see an endless recycling of his old work while his later work goes ignored. Francis Ford Coppola's first two Godfather films, in 1972 and '74, are among the most revered, and unquestionably the most influential, grownup films of the past half-century. Add The Conversation and his Vietnam movie, Apocalypse Now, and Coppola had one decade, the '70s, as artistically productive as almost any other filmmaker's in history. Yet in his later years, Coppola had trouble getting film financing; and in 2007, when he released Youth Without Youth, his first new picture in a decade, it was greeted with a shrug from critics and the public.
Now comes Tetro, Coppola's first original script since The Conversation 35 years ago, and what seems a very personal work: a story about an Italian family with rancor and secrets galore think The Godfather, but with artists instead of gangsters. The great news is that at 70, this unquestioned giant of American cinema is still making independent-minded movies. (He finances them largely through the profits of his very productive vineyard.) The bad news is that he made this one. (See a gallery of iconic images from Coppola's films.)
Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich), 17, has come off a cruise ship, where he works as an assistant waiter, to the Buenos Aires flat that his reclusive, much older brother Tetro (Vincent Gallo) shares with mistress Miranda (Maribel Verdú). Tetro, a budding writer, had walked out on the family after a fight with his domineering, priapic father Carlo (Klaus Maria Brandauer). Carlo, a famous conductor who hounded his own musician brother for being less successful, had stolen Tetro's dancer girlfriend and taken her as his second wife. Bennie discovers an unfinished play of Tetro's, written in code, about two generations of animosities and betrayals. Bennie, who has long idolized Tetro, takes the manuscript, writes an ending and has it staged in a local arts pageant. That sends skeletons dancing out of the family closet for the therapeutic finale.
You'll hear clear echoes of the Godfather films, for which Coppola, who knew nothing about real gangsters, has said he appropriated much of his own family dynamic the scenes of eating and arguing. There are also hints of another 1974 classic, Chinatown, in the family mystery peeled layer by layer. And like Youth Without Youth, the new film boasts an exceptionally sensitive performance by a young actor here Ehrenreich, who looks like a missing Sheen brother and plays the callow Bennie as if innocence and ignorance were the coolest qualities a teenager could possess.
But Gallo is an actor who's all brooding surfaces and no depth. He can't touch whatever primal pain Coppola wants Tetro to conceal and then reveal. Nor has Coppola filled out the canvas with telling incidents or characters that go much beyond caricature. Sitting through the two-plus hours of Tetro can be an ordeal.
Granted that, the film, which uses the same team Coppola found for the much more daring and romantic Youth Without Youth, looks great. After hundreds of movies and TV shows shot in the shaky-cam style, it's a blessing to find one in which the camera is on a tripod and almost never moves. That gives Tetro the stateliness of silent films, just as the use of glistening or sepulchral black-and-white brings some of the glamour of classic Hollywood. But Coppola fans want him to recapture the dramatic coherence and operatic grandeur of his most productive decade. The movie plays not like an old man's film but like a promising, frustrating student effort.
Coppola has said he was inspired by the semiautobiographical works of Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams. (One of his first screenwriting credits was on the 1966 film version of Williams' This Property Is Condemned.) For those aware of the filmmaker's family history, Tetro's backstory has provocative reverberations. Coppola's father Carmine was a flutist for the NBC Symphony Orchestra who left regular work to pursue his ambitions as a composer; later he wrote the score for several of Francis' films. Carmine's brother Anton was, for much of their careers, the more renowned of the two: the composer of a violin concerto and the opera Sacco and Vanzetti. He married and divorced a dancer, then married another dancer. So it would seem that in Tetro, the father and uncle roles are switched, and revenge is a dish best served 50 years late.
At the film's world premiere in Cannes last month, Coppola said of the similarities between life and script, "Nothing like this happened, and everything is true." Alas, in Tetro he has made a movie in which plenty happens but nothing rings true.