Tetro -- Film Review

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CANNES -- "Tetro" looks like the work of a film school grad, his head swimming with the classic black-and-white European films of the '50s and '60s and his mind unable to shake his struggles with his family. And yet, its author is Francis Ford Coppola, making a mostly triumphant return to his earlier filmmaking days and to Cannes itself, where he has picked up a couple of Palme d'Ors.

After its debut as the opening-night film in the Directors' Fortnight, "Tetro" should have no trouble winning future festival dates and securing distribution worldwide.

As a critic, it feels good to write positively about one of the American cinema's lost directors. Once so dazzling in his ambition and audacity, Coppola was forced by financial woes to make other people's movies for so many years that when he returned to indie filmmaking with 2007's "Youth Without Youth," the result was a confusing, pretentious work that found favor with few.

"Tetro" erases that memory. It has style to burn, eye-catching acting by an international cast and a story that harkens back to many literary classic with its themes of a family torn apart, brothers in conflict and a son's rivalry with a towering father figure.

Yes, it does feel artificial with the Buenos Aires neighborhood of La Boca looking like a backlot confection and the drama pitched at somewhat precious levels, where an accident can never be just an accident, it has to mean something. The film is more than a little self-conscious. Coppola admits to -- no, he boasts of -- his influences here from Elia Kazan's "On the Waterfront" and "the mysterious work of Antonioni" to Tennessee Williams, Eugene O'Neill and, as a model for his angry young poet, Antonin Artaud.

Yet somehow the piece comes off as derivative but also original. While living and working in Argentina to make this film, he absorbed enough local color to imagine a fresh, authentic tale of stymied creativity -- a subject he certainly would be familiar with -- and familial conflict.

In his story, he dreams of a young lad coming to Buenos Aires to find his long-lost brother. Bennie, a few days shy of 18, is played by newcomer Alden Ehrenreich, reminding one of a young Leonardo DiCaprio. Bennie's Italian family originally came from Argentina, but everyone immigrated to New York, where father Carlo Tetrocini (Klaus Maria Brandauer) became a world-famous conductor, while his older conductor brother, Alfie (also Brandauer), languished in obscurity.

There is room for only one genius in this family, and Carlo claims that mantle. Bennie's elder brother fled years ago to Buenos Aires and changed his first name to Tetro -- a mere reworking of the family name. His live-in girlfriend, Miranda (Maribel Verdu), declares him a "genius," only a genius without achievements.

Vincent Gallo trades on his own bad-boy image as a highly emotional actor and filmmaker to play the brooding, unstrung writer, who is not happy to see his baby brother. But thanks perhaps to Miranda, he doesn't throw him out either.

Bennie, restless with his own artistic ambition, rummages through the couple's modest flat one afternoon and comes upon an unfinished play by Tetro that concerns their father. In the days to come, he finishes the play, and a local celebrity literary critic (Carmen Maura) declares it a masterwork.

OK, so this is a plot contrivance that doesn't hold water for a minute, but the whole film takes place in a world infused with a Yankee version of magic realism.

Which brings us to the "accidents." When Bennie first sees Tetro, he is on crutches, newly released from a hospital after getting hit by a bus. It turns out Tetro was driving the car the night his own mother died in a crash back in New York. (Bennie and Tetro have different mothers.) Then, Bennie gets hit by a motorcycle, imposing on him a hospital convalescence during which he finishes the play.

The music by Osvaldo Golijov is wistful -- sometimes sad, sometimes happy. The widescreen film is shot by Mihai Malaimare Jr. in a highly contrasted black-and-white, with the camera mostly stationary. Yet flashbacks are in color, as are several ballet sequences that draw upon films by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

These dances, choreographed by Ana Maria Stekelman, get inside the head of the blocked writer, though given the joint authorship of the play, perhaps it gets into the head of both Tetro and Bennie.

"Tetro" represents a collision of genres -- the coming-of-age tale (Bennie) and the Oedipal conflict in a son who wishes to kill his father (Tetro). In the end, it's about family, about the rivalries, conflicts and healing. It's also about Coppola leaving the U.S. for a bohemian, Italian-influenced district of Buenos Aires to rediscover his art and love for film.

Festival de Cannes -- Directors' Fortnight opening film

Production: American Zoetrope, BIM Distribuzione, Tornasol Films, Agrupacion de Cine 001, Castafiore Films
Cast: Vincent Gallo, Alden Ehrenreich, Maribel Verdu, Klaus Maria Brandauer, Carmen Maura, Rodrigo De l Serna, Leticia Bredice, Mike Amigorena, Sofia Castiglione, Erica Rivas, Francesca De Sapio
Director-screenwriter-producer: Francis Ford Coppola
Executive producers: Anahid Nazarian, Fred Roos
Director of photography: Mihai Malaimare, Jr.
Production designer: Sebastian Orgambide
Music: Osvaldo Golijov
Costume designer: Cecilia Monti
Choreographer: Ana Maria Stekelman
Editor: Walter Murch

No rating, 127 minutes