Tetro is set in modern-day Argentina. Save for one shot of an Apple laptop, though, the film’s look and overall feeling of nostalgia makes it seem much older. Gorgeous, high-contrast black-and-white images—courtesy of cinematographer Mihai Malaimare, Jr.—give the film a more classic, timeless look.Tetro is worth viewing just to see the breathtaking shots of Argentina—which can easily be stunning with all of the naturally occurring color —done in the dreamy, luscious black-and-white style. Shown in a 2:35 aspect ratio, the shots in the film could be museum quality as still photography.
The film follows Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich, in a performance that recalls Leonardo DiCaprio), a just-turned-18-year-old who escaped military school for life as “not even a waiter” on a cruise ship. When the ship’s engines need repair in Argentina, he takes the opportunity to track down his brother, Tetro (Vincent Gallo), a writer who hasn’t yet lived up to his artistic potential. Eking out a bohemian lifestyle with other writers and actors, Tetro previously cut off all ties to his family, so Bennie’s visit naturally dregs up past traumas, betrayals, and family secrets—mostly about their father, a world-famous maestro. Tetro’s girlfriend, Miranda (Maribel Verdú), tries to hold everyone together.
Aside from the beauty of the black-and-white images, the greatest appeal to Tetro is the way director Francis Ford Coppola plays with his storytelling, incorporating a love for all forms of art. (The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffmann are directly referenced, and are clear influences on the film’s look and feel.) When the characters remember bits of their past, the memories are shown to the audience via in-color flashbacks done in a boxier aspect ratio, as if they were old, ‘60s television shows or home movies. Usually in films, the flashbacks are gauzy and muted. Coppola flips things around—making the flashbacks vibrant and colorful, while still distorted—to show how the emotional impact of those events still haven’t dulled for the characters.
Even better, when Bennie reads his brother’s writing, it’s represented on the screen as a ballet. In one of the DVD’s numerous featurettes, Coppola explains that he worked closely with Argentinian choreographer Ana María Stekelman to produce these vignettes. Though there are only a few bits of ballet—done in front of floaty, surreal backgrounds added in courtesy of blue-screen—they convey the perfectly intense emotions and beauty of Tetro’s words. (Reading his prose—purported to be “genius”—out loud, or via voiceover, surely would have been clunkier and less elegant.)
The characters themselves are all artists and playwrights, and multiple scenes in the film involve some sort of performance—occasionally involving fictionalized versions of events from the characters’ own lives. (A version of Faust, with a female main character, is another of the DVD’s special features by itself—though, after seeing an excerpt in the film, I’m not sure why anyone would want to watch it.) This just adds another meta-layer into the mix, showing again that there’s a fluid relationship between life, art, and artifice.
While it’s interesting to watch Coppola navigate through these different mediums, unfortunately the story he has to tell with them does not match the innovation he uses to tell it. Rival artists, jealousies between brothers, families fraught with secrets and old, unhealed wounds—it all plays out more or less like it does in almost every movie that handles these subjects. A revelation of sorts that turns up late in the film—while handled in a particularly artistic scene—pushes the plot more towards cliché than away from it.
Coppola could have leaned on his characters more to make these rote touchstones feel less familiar. With the exception of Bennie and Tetro—brought to life by Vincent Gallo’s authentic misanthropy—everyone else in the present-day story feels like a rough sketch or a caricature. Poor Maribel Verdú—who lights up the screen when she’s on it—has to contend with a character that almost disappears halfway through the film, reduced to a series of put-upon reaction shots. It’s a shame that her character isn’t given enough to do to allow her to compete with the memory of other characters, who only appear via flashback. Coppola would have done better had he realized that we love old black-and-white movies for the people in them and the stories they tell—not just from the look of the pictures.