Absent father

Eugene Carey tries to figure out Francis Ford Coppola’s mono mood-fest set in Buenos Aires, Tetro


Francis Ford Coppola
2009, American Zoetrope/Zoetrope Argentina/Tornasol
127 minutes (English)

LATAMROB rating: **

THE Latin American father continues to fascinate in this dark drama by Francis Ford Coppola set in Buenos Aires in which two estranged brothers grapple with their past.

Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich), a waiter on a cruise ship, stops over in the Argentine capital and jumps at the chance to seek out his older brother, Tetro, whom he hasn’t seen in ages.

The mercurial and suspicious Tetro (Vincent Gallo), once an aspiring writer but now a shadow of his former self convalescing from mental illness, has spent years trying to escape any exposure to his family. Yet the naive but pleasant Bennie, just about to celebrate his 18th birthday, is intent on renewing the bond of brothers and seizes on Tetro’s half-finished play to search for the answer to his troubles.

Tetro’s partner Miranda (Maribel Verdú), a psychologist who nursed him back to health, mediates the evolving relationship between the two radically different characters and Bennie’s efforts to rationalise Tetro’s tug-of-love relationship with their father, a celebrated musician.

Paternal responsibility

The fascination here is with the notion of paternal responsibility, and in particular a father’s responsibility towards the fulfillment of a son’s dreams. Tetro has spent his life in the stultifying shadow of a genius unable to concede to him the love and encouragement that come with fatherhood; this influence has eroded Tetro’s belief in his own genius and his ability to offer paternal encouragement.

Both men – father and son – resort to a form of metaphorical parricide in order to deal with the burden of having to reconcile art with the reality of being a parent.

At times self-indulgent and laboured, Tetro is at least visually striking and moody enough to grate. Coppola has form when it comes to exploring father-son relationships in, say, the Godfather, and his own son Roman, also a film-maker, appears in the credits of this movie. Family has always been a key theme in his work, but also in his life – hardly surprising given the creative success achieved by the extended Coppola clan.

Ehrenreich is a young DiCaprio and clearly has a bright future, and although Gallo has to restrain his character, he has a brooding charisma that carries an otherwise straightforward and in fact rather dull narrative. Verdú is sadly wasted as Miranda, and the portrayal of women in the film as bystanders to male genius or the dazzled playthings of talented artists betrays a shallow understanding of female psychology.

The critics were divided on this one, with some soaking up the forced auteur-ish attempt at creating a mono mood-fest yet others suggesting that Coppola is a spent force and it would be kindest simply to ignore the film completely.

What is perhaps more interesting is why Coppola chose Buenos Aires in which to set this movie, which is made in English and depicts a family that seems rootless, albeit of Italian origin.

Reports said the director was attracted to Argentina because of its cultural and cinematic traditions, although there is little in Tetro that has a particularly Argentine feel to it. Nor do the characters give us any real insight into their backgrounds, other than the tensions that exist with the father. You could be forgiven for getting through the movie thinking that they were in fact merely bohemian Yankee adventurers trying to live on a budget down south.

One can only speculate that Coppola simply wanted to make an Argentine movie, arguably with a self-conscious nod to a shared past of Italian immigration, but fluffed his lines and found himself making an American one instead. It would have been far better for him to have stuck to what he knows best.

Eugene Carey is a freelance journalist

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