September 4, 2009

Coppola's Silver Screen Beauty Is Skin Deep

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The horror … the horror. Lo and behold, famed director and screenwriter Francis Ford Coppola has laid an egg: he calls it Tetro. Carrying the tagline “Every family has a secret,” Tetro is Coppola’s second “amateur-again” film after Youth Without Youth. Tetro is Coppola giving himself second chance, his personal spurning of Hollywood and its fakeness, unoriginality … one could give Hollywood a bad name a thousand times over. At age 70, Coppola has left living room legends Apocalypse Now and The Godfather trilogy behind him, and has purposely regressed his budget with the intention of rediscovering what it is that made him apply to L.A. film school.
Tetro is the story of the broken Tetrocini family. The film stars two brothers who have run away from home. The older, Tetro, escaped from the family long ago, seeking refuge in Buenos Aires from his domineering father, unfortunately abandoning his kid brother. The younger, Bennie, is naturally attempting to reconnect with his brother; he desires to find the truth about their mother and ask Tetro why he never came back to get him, as promised. The third main character is Tetro’s live-in girlfriend Miranda, an omnipresent yet vague character who is keen on reuniting the brothers and helping to solve both their problems. As Tetro progresses, we learn that Tetro left the family in New York City under the pretense of a self-discovering writing sabbatical, but that none of his work has ever been seen. This phenomenon combined with the awkward treatment of Bennie shows us that Tetro does intend to keep his past a secret forever. However, Bennie’s determination, under Miranda’s careful eye proves to slowly break open Tetro’s shell, thus creating a new goal for the pair: free Tetro from himself.
Coppola progresses Tetro’s plot by forcing us to guess what family’s dark secret is, that is, why Tetro is being such a reticent asshole to his younger brother. We wonder because the movie is very character based and the main character’s personalities are built upon their determination to keep the past a secret or to discover the past. We also wonder because Coppola consistently injects blatant symbols into the plot, ones that bring to mind truth and reflection, i.e. mirrors and blinding light. Indeed, Coppola does a good job of letting us in on the Tetrocini family’s past as opposed to having Tetro simply fold and retell it to his brother.
When I say that Tetro is worthless, I am only half-serious. What I mean to suggest is that Tetro is uninspiring. Despite Coppola’s serious attempt to return to novice status, the film is on the whole boring. Sure, the three main characters constantly butt heads and the idea of breaking open a grizzly-faced old man through his own writing keep the movie alive, but I never felt completely absorbed by the movie.
What is remarkable about Tetro is its cinematography. Firstly, it is an aesthetic gem. About 90 percent of it is in remarkably crisp black and white, which sometimes had me following Tetro and Bennie stalk each other across the apartment, pushing each other into corners, closing doors and eyes to one another, simply because it was beautiful. Miranda too, when she sits across the table from Tetro, simultaneously soothing and coaxing him out of his shell, is all the more attractive because of how focused we are on her eyes and her gaze — the background during these moments is simply that, a backdrop for the action, violent or not.
Soon, Tetro is being phased out of Cinemapolis’ menu. It is worth a rent because of how good it looks, although it is best admired on a large screen. Tetro is also worthwhile if you want to compare it to Coppola’s other films, his earlier ones to decide whether the regression makes any sense at all, and his later works simply to see if you can tell that it’s the same director/screenwriter. A final qualification: perhaps the basis of the plot is romantic enough that it’s worth a shot. If that’s what you’re into.