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Blu-ray Review: TETRO; Coppola's most interesting film since Rumble Fish!

'The Godfather'. 'The Conversation'. 'Apocalypse Now'. With these three films alone Francis Ford Coppola had, by 1979, boldly and permanently engraved his name into cinema history. So universally admired and influential are those three films that his years spent as a hired gun in order to pay off debts (making such films as 'Jack' and the second 'Godfather' sequel) have done little to damage his reputation or to tarnish his legacy. With his place in history assured, the elder statesman of cinema is now able to make films (more or less) for his own sake and whenever he sees fit. His output has sharply declined over the last decade, but his recent movies are smaller and much more personal. None more so than 'Tetro', the film released theatrically in the US well over a year ago, and the first to carry a solo writing credit for Coppola since 'The Conversation' way back in 1974. It came out on Blu-ray on Monday. 'Tetro' stars enfant terrible Vincent Gallo in the title role as a writer who has forsaken his past and, to some extent, his future in order to live a life of quiet anonymity. Maribel Verdú plays his supportive and kind-hearted girlfriend Miranda, whilst obscure television bit-part actor Alden Ehrenreich is his brother, Bennie. Gallo, in spite of his reputation as a combative and difficult man off camera, imbues 'Tetro' with a warmth and vulnerability which is sometimes genuinely moving. He convinces completely as the suffering artist type and performs with an undeniable intensity, immediately familiar to anyone who saw 'Essential Killing' or 'Promises Written in Water' in Venice earlier this month. Equally good is Verdú, who almost stole the show from Bernal and Luna in 2001's 'Y tu mamá también'. She is just as brilliant here. It is unthinkable that, aside from roles in 'Pan's Labyrinth' and the 2004 flop 'The Alamo', Verdú has not been a regular sight on international movie screens as she would appear to have it all. But happily Coppola has taken notice and in 'Tetro' she is able to showcase her talent: giving Miranda strength and intelligence, but also compassion and genuine sex appeal. But despite these winning performances it is actually Alden Ehrenreich gives the star turn here, being reminiscent of a young Leonardo DiCaprio (with maybe a hint of Brando) in his facial expressions, mannerisms and delivery. Ehrenreich could definitely be a major star in the near future. There is also a small but welcome role for Rodrigo de la Serna, whose most famous role was in Walter Salles' 'The Motorcycle Diaries' in 2004. He makes for a cheerful screen presence as Tetro's friend, Jose. Mihai Malaimare Jr. €“ a veteran of Coppola€™s last project, 'Youth Without Youth' - is responsible for the film's remarkable black and white photography, mostly shot in Spain and Argentina (where the film is set). You will not see a more beautifully composed and stylishly shot film this year, and it is made all the better for being available in the crystal clear sharpness afforded by high definition on the Blu-ray. I was concerned that Tetro could turn out to be nothing more than a bit of art for arts sake: a pretentious and self-indulgent work and an exercise in style over substance. Yet it is instead a compelling work, driven by its story and the relationships between its central characters. The narrative is admittedly slight and could probably be summarised in a few sentences, but the film's form helps to convey the emotional journey undertaken by Tetro and Bennie in coming to terms with their family's past. I don't know enough about Coppola's background to be certain, but this story of the rivalry between a fathers and sons feels as though it is of personal significance to the director. Tetro's flashbacks, which (in an amusing reversal of cinematic convention) take place in colour and a different aspect ratio to the rest of the film, are pretty successful at establishing the history behind Gallo€™s character. They are also somehow among the most convincing "memories" ever committed to film, feeling like incomplete sketches of moments in time. Not so much what happened, but perhaps more representative of what Tetro feels about what happened. Sometimes the film is self-consciously flashy, perhaps to its detriment as it distracts from the action at hand, such as when Tetro is seen speaking to Bennie in silhouette (cool as this image is). There are also colourful, CGI-infused scenes of dance which play in homage to the great ballet films of old (such as 'The Red Shoes' and 'The Tales of Hoffmann') which are imaginative and do well to convey the artistry Bennie finds in his brother€™s writing. There are moments of real genius too, for instance the jarring reverse angle employed during a motorcycle accident, which is powerful and magnificently executed.

Quality/Extras

As a Blu-ray disc 'Tetro' is pretty average. There are three features which run just under ten minutes each, looking at the cinematography, the choreography of the ballet sequences and the composition of the score. A fourth feature, entitled €œcast of characters€, is bewilderingly three minutes of credits. Given how much this film seems to have been a personal labour of love for Coppola, it is a little disappointing that there is not a director€™s commentary or an in-depth interview with the man. In any case, the three small documentaries provided are insightful looks at parts of the production process often ignored. 'Tetro' is intensely dramatic, and it is not an exaggeration to say it is an operatic tale of a big family saga - not unlike Coppola's 'Godfather' films although made on a much smaller budget. 'Tetro' is Francis Ford Coppola's most interesting film since 1983's 'Rumble Fish' (with which the film bears more than a passing resemblance stylistically). That is not to say it is the most enjoyable or fun since that date, but it is certainly his most complete movie in a long while. It is written, directed and produced by Coppola with clear engagement and real love. In 'Tetro' we may have evidence that one of the medium's most celebrated artists has rediscovered his muse. A fact which we can only hope will lead to similarly interesting work in the future. If it doesn't turn out that way, then perhaps this marks a respectable closing chapter for an interesting career. Tetro is available on Blu-ray now.
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A regular film and video games contributor for What Culture, Robert also writes reviews and features for The Daily Telegraph, GamesIndustry.biz and The Big Picture Magazine as well as his own Beames on Film blog. He also has essays and reviews in a number of upcoming books by Intellect.