Gorgeous Black-and-White Images Give Tetro a Classic, Timeless Look

Aside from the beauty of the black-and-white images, the greatest appeal of Tetro is the way director Francis Ford Coppola plays with his storytelling, incorporating a love for all forms of art.


Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Cast: Vincent Gallo, Alden Ehrenreich, Maribel Verdú, Klaus Maria Brandauer
Distributor: Lionsgate
Rated: R
Release date: 2010-05-04

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.





Run the Jewels - "Ooh LA LA" (Singles Going Steady)

Run the Jewels' "Ooh LA LA" may hit with old-school hip-hop swagger, but it also frustratingly affirms misogynistic bro-culture.


New Translation of Balzac's 'Lost Illusions' Captivates

More than just a tale of one man's fall, Balzac's Lost Illusions charts how literature becomes another commodity in a system that demands backroom deals, moral compromise, and connections.


Protomartyr - "Processed by the Boys" (Singles Going Steady)

Protomartyr's "Processed By the Boys" is a gripping spin on reality as we know it, and here, the revolution is being televised.


Go-Go's Bassist Kathy Valentine Is on the "Write" Track After a Rock-Hard Life

The '80s were a wild and crazy time also filled with troubles, heartbreak and disappointment for Go-Go's bass player-guitarist Kathy Valentine, who covers many of those moments in her intriguing dual project that she discusses in this freewheeling interview.


New Brain Trajectory: An Interview With Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree

Two guitarists, Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree make an album largely absent of guitar playing and enter into a bold new phase of their careers. "We want to take this wherever we can and be free of genre restraints," says Lee Ranaldo.


'Trans Power' Is a Celebration of Radical Power and Beauty

Juno Roche's Trans Power discusses trans identity not as a passageway between one of two linear destinations, but as a destination of its own.


Yves Tumor Soars With 'Heaven to a Tortured Mind'

On Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Yves Tumor relishes his shift to microphone caressing rock star. Here he steps out of his sonic chrysalis, dons some shiny black wings and soars.


Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras' tētēma Don't Hit the Mark on 'Necroscape'

tētēma's Necroscape has some highlights and some interesting ambiance, but ultimately it's a catalog of misses for Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras.


M. Ward Offers Comforting Escapism on 'Migration Stories'

Although M. Ward didn't plan the songs on Migration Stories for this pandemic, they're still capable of acting as a balm in these dark hours.


Parsonsfield Add Indie Pop to Their Folk on 'Happy Hour on the Floor'

Happy Hour on the Floor is a considerable departure from Parsonsfield's acclaimed rustic folk sound signaling their indie-pop orientation. Parsonsfield remind their audience to bestow gratitude and practice happiness: a truly welcomed exaltation.


JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.


All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he would shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means one of the brightest stars in the power-pop universe has suddenly dimmed.


Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.


Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.


Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.


'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.


Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.


Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Collapse Expand Reviews
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.