As overstated as Francis Ford Coppola's fall from grace may be, there's no denying that he never hit the same heights as his series of '70s films, in which he made four films, all four of which were masterpieces. It seemed as if, like all other filmmakers, Coppola himself couldn't top The Godfather or Apocalypse Now, and only brief flashes of inspiration -- Tucker, bits of Rumble Fish and Dracula, which I seriously and unfairly underrated and will soon revise -- pointed toward the genius that was. After spending a decade at his vineyard watching his daughter carve out a sizable amount of respect for herself, however, Coppola has reemerged, and the titan of New Hollywood became the unlikeliest of things: an independent. Youth Without Youth, a twisty, hugely ambitious feature, packed as many different types of movie -- time travel, WWII romance, philosophical meditation -- about reversed aging as David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and Coppola did so with a fraction of the budget.
Taken with his latest feature, Tetro, Coppola's comeback places a particular focus on the actual beauty and meaning of creation, that is, the art of art. Youth Without Youth, a film about a man miraculously aged backwards and allowed a second chance at youth with the wisdom of an aged brain, could easily be a commentary on how digital photography, decreased actor salaries and an increasing ability to work outside the major studio system and still have a few million dollars to work with have given the director a second lease on artistic life.
Tetro takes this one step further. Semi-autobiographical in its story of an Italian-American family of gifted artists, Tetro is infused with the history of filmmaking in the same way that his Dracula was infused with the history of, well, damn near all of Teutonic artforms. Containing clips and extrapolated reinterpretations of Michael Powell's The Tales of Hoffmann and The Red Shoes, Coppola's latest is appropriately operatic, and bizarrely melodramatic in the Almodóvar tradition. Its tale of family rivalry and scorn will set tongues wagging over which character represents which celebrity in the fertile family tree of the Coppolas, but the structure here lends itself to something more universal, not so much impersonal as overseeing.
The film's title refers to one Angelo Tetrocini (Vincent Gallo), who takes on an abbreviation of his surname as he hides out in Buenos Aires suffering from writer's block. His much-younger brother, Benjamin (Aiden Ehrenreich) comes looking for him, but Tetro makes it immediately clear that, though his feud with his family never extended to his brother, his mere presence reminds him of what he left. Bennie, who also left military school to defy their father, works on a cruise ship so he can still wear an approximation of a naval uniform, and he uses his week-long furlough in Argentina to spend time with his brother, who lets him stay only at the urging of Tetro's girlfriend, Miranda (Maribel Verdú).
Bennie, virginal and confused in a country full of people who speak an unfamiliar language, has all the more reason to hang on his brother while there, desperately trying to coax an explanation for why he never came back for the boy. It's clear that Tetro's resentment does not extend to Bennie, who's so similar to his older brother that the eldest snaps, "Don't do me, do you. I'll be me" when Bennie sarcastically refuses to answer questions to prove how irritating the silent treatment is. The last thing Tetro wants to be is a role model, though it's surprising that even his fresh-faced kid brother could do so. Gallo pours his reptilian ego into the role, a failed artist who holds onto his failure as if it had become his art, too proud to release it. He forbids Bennie from telling Miranda about their father and looks keen to send his brother back to America as soon as possible.
But Bennie stays, and his quest to dig up what drove his brother away and to uncover his own hidden past lead Coppola through a range of daring artistic devices. Shot mostly in high-contrast, digital black-and-white, Tetro lives and dies by the precise framing by the director and his cinematographer, Mihai Malaimare Jr., who also contributed to the beautiful compositions of Coppola's previous feature. The chiaroscuro mise-en-scène in Tetro is picturesque and provocative, not just emotionally but artistically: Tetro moves a mirror into place in his flat and the reflective effects allow for compounded compositions. When Bennie finally spills the beans about their father, a famous composer, to Miranda, the director cuts to Tetro frozen at the top of the stairs eavesdropping, shooting in deep focus to capture the stairs stretching behind and below the man in Expressionistic suggestion. The influence of the Germans is only exacerbated as the scene wears on and Tetro shouts down his brother as the camera remains on Bennie's face as the shadow of his brother bears down on him like Count Orlock.
When combined with the open quotation and literal presentation of Michael Powell's movies, the influence of Expressionism on Tetro opens up the true heart of the picture. Consider the outright usage of footage from Hoffmann: that was Powell's attempt to bring opera into the cinematic medium in a way that could only exist in that medium (much as The Red Shoes did for ballet). Coppola's features have always been operatic, especially his treasured Godfather series, but even his '80s youth movies have an unabashed melodrama, if the chief influence there -- making the logical step backwards in age and maturity -- is the musical and not opera. Here, as with Youth Without Youth, Coppola utilizes the broad emotions and half-cooked plot of the story to drive larger statements about art.
Tetro fled his father for being controlling and egomaniacal, insisting to both his sons, "There's only room for one genius in this family." The tortured son plans to write a play about his abusive childhood, but he stalls in Buenos Aires, content to live in his failure and refusing to work on his project. And when Bennie discovers his brother's manuscripts and sets out to write an ending for the work, his attempt to finish his brother's play seems less a validation of art as a means to link people than simply the latest spiral in the cycle of appropriation and plagiarism in the family (their father Carlo having achieved stardom by ripping off his older brother).
As in The Red Shoes, the characters of Tetro define worth through artistic talents -- the composing father, the writing sons, the singing first wife and dancing second -- but they do not find much pleasure in them. Wünderkinds battle it out for supremacy while the older generations rot in the wake of their own power struggles. Amusingly, the Tetrocini family resembles a liberal arts version of the Corleones, waging an internal war in which soldiers are decorated with grants and caporegimes win Pulitzers. The mediating voice in this conflict is the critic, personified by a garishly self-absorbed woman known only as "Alone," the biggest critic in South America. Alone has constructed a warped empire of half-analytical, half-gossipy tabloids, and her carriage and fashion suggests what Anna Wintour might be like if she insisted that Vanity Fair promoted "serious" criticism without sacrificing its glitzy side. Tetro seeks her validation so that he can throw it in Carlo's face, and Coppola has a grand time sending up the academics who so dearly loved him in the '70s before treating him like a leper and forcing him into a 10-year hiatus.
All of this makes for a melodrama that recalls, of all people, Pedro Almodóvar -- Carmen Maura, who plays Alone, is one of the Spanish director's regulars. Among the artistic flourishes in the film are a drag/striptease version of Faust that Tetro ruins by heckling. And if anyone still thinks that this is a gritty look at a broken family, lines like "Do you know what love is in our family? It's a stab in the heart" should adjust one's thinking to the proper perspective. In Gallo, Coppola has a deliciously aloof figure who seems most at home when he's at his most uncomfortable; when Bennie sustains an injury and winds up in the hospital, Gallo believably sells a joking moment where he slyly insists that he's only visiting his brother because they shared the same hospital room. Verdú is, of course, gorgeous and radiates grace, the only party who can stand outside the action and attempt to salve all the opened wounds.
The true find, however, is Ehrenreich. Looking like a young Leonardo DiCaprio, Ehrenreich with his first major role also proves that he can tap into the same well of simmering, brooding talent that the older DiCaprio now exhibits regularly. I wonder if Coppola saw the young man this way, too, placing him in a cruise ship uniform at the start to play on Ehrenreich's heartthrob looks by way of a vague Titanic reference before scuttling him away from the ship and letting his chops take over. Some fault the film for not being emotionally plausible or resonant, which misses the point but is an understandable error when Ehrenreich's mere presence makes one invest in him.
Enamored as the camera is with Ehrenreich, however, Coppola never loses focus, even if the film has a broad thematic makeup. Tetro opens suddenly on an extreme close-up of a light bulb humming as a moth flutters about and bumps into the lamp, and bright lights routinely hypnotize both brothers. When they head to Alone's festival in Patagonia, the light reflecting off the mountains resembles the flashes of adoring cameras, and Tetro stares at this sight with such intensity that an epileptic fit looks imminent. Bennie, too, is drawn to bright lights as he digs deeper into his family history, and thankfully Tetro snaps out of his own fixation in time to help his brother. "You can't look at the light," he tells Bennie, and in that moment Coppola takes a unique approach to art. Most films present the light as the escape from the horrors of life, the filter that allows us to confront reality; for the director just now getting back to work, focusing too intently on the spotlight or the beam of a film projector simply blinds us. With a vision like that, Coppola might yet prove to be a fresh, emerging talent of 70.