Tetro Fish

One of my favorite movies is Apocalypse Now. I love it, right down to its murky ending. So much so that I’ve never been able to bring myself to watch Apocalypse Now Redux, the mega-expanded hour-longer version for fear it will make me reject the whole project.

My old martial arts instructor, with whom I used to have hours long bull sessions after class, rejected it as a “film student project”. And the thing is, I can’t really argue with that perception of it. It’s a bold movie, and if it fails in your eyes, “film student project” is a fair description.

Last Sunday, I dragged The Boy out to see Francis Ford Coppola’s latest film, Tetro, and if you had that idea that Coppola inclined toward that sort of “film student project”, this is not going to be the movie to disabuse you of that notion.

There are two things I can say for sure about this movie:

1. It is positively gorgeous, a sheer masterwork of cinematography, light and shadows, blocking, and composition with nary a throwaway shot.

2. At about two hours, it is overlong by about 20 minutes.

The story is simple: Young Bennie (played by Alden Ehrenreich in a role Leo DiCaprio would’ve done ten years ago) goes to Buenos Aires to track down his older brother, Tetro, who fled the family many years earlier with a promise to come back for him, but who never did.

Tetro has become a famous writer who doesn’t ever write or publish anything, but seems to be very well liked and respected in his own modest way in this little corner of the city known as La Boca. He has a faithful girlfriend-not-quite-wife, and in his not-quite-functional way, he’s living a good life.

The imbalancing effect of Bennie is two-fold: First he knows nothing about his own history, so he digs through Tetro’s autobiographical play; second, Tetro’s friends know nothing about Tetro’s past, so Bennie reveals truths to them Tetro wanted to keep hidden.

This all unfolds in glorious black-and-white, except for the flashbacks, which are in color (and a 4:3 format instead of 16:9?), and we slowly get a picture of the dysfunctional family the two are from. A little too slowly, really, since I figured it out at the start of Act III.

So, besides the length, this movie is both very meta- and very “inside baseball”. First of all, it’s littered with shots that, if they aren’t famous from other movies, feel like they ought to be. Coppola can (and does) do that. It always feels more like he’s painting from the same palette as the masters versus ripping them off. But unlike, say, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, where it was almost necessary to know all the films he was riffing off of, this stuff just works.

But this is about the struggles of a very creatively talented family. Their dysfunction manifests in the expression of their art: The play Tetro can’t finish; the life Bennie can’t begin; and the patriarch who is not satisfied with his own greatness unless he can grind everyone else down. It’s not necessarily something everyone can relate to.

Even more problematic is that Tetro and Bennie bonded through Tetro exposing the younger boy to arty films, and segments of the third act play out as dance numbers that hearken back to one of those films. I’m talking ballet-esque bits with real dancers (not the actors). One was interesting; three was probably excessive.

One thing that Coppola has over most of the “film student” types is an inherent upbeat nature. His movies, no matter how dark the subject matter, tend to be an affirmation of life. And so, while this movie looks very noir, it doesn’t wallow in darkness.

That’s probably why I like it. I really wouldn’t recommend it to just anyone. And we picked a bad time to go see it, too: The show started after 10PM, and we were both wiped out. The Boy couldn’t decide if he was having trouble getting into it, or if it was just bad. (Keep in mind that he couldn’t sit through Vertigo the night before with the same issue. He had a restless weekend for various reasons.)

Other things to appreciate in this movie include the acting, with young Ehrenreich doing fine work, Vincent Gallo doing what he does, Maribel Verdu just perfect as the devoted not-wife, Klaus Maria Brandauer as the patriarch, and so on. The music is perfect.

But even so, I know a lot of people would consider it boring, pretentious, overly arty, and so on. I was won over by its basic good nature, and skill in execution that you just don’t see any more. You might not be.

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