Dir/scr. Francis Ford Coppola. US-Arg-Sp-It. 2009. 127mins.

A melodramatic family drama set in a Buenos Aires where even innocent passers-by seem consumed by jealousy and passion, Tetro offers glimpses of a golden-age Francis Ford Coppola in his first original script since The Conversation (1974). Although it feels at times like a vanity project, some strong performances  – most notably by Spanish actress Maribel Verdu (Y tu mama tambien), but also Vincent Gallo in the title role and newcomer Alden Ehrenreich – save all but Tetro’s most cringeworthy lines.

Tetro goes out domestically on June 11 through Coppola’s American Zoetrope releasing, where its more linear storyline should attract more viewers than Youth Without Youth. Ultimately, Tetro looks likely to become what the French call a succes d’estime in the international marketplace (although audiences in Argentina may react poorly to the film’s tourist trip through their complex social and cultural drives).

Mihai Malaimare’s moody black and white photography, an atmospheric score by Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov and long time Coppola collaborator Walter Murch’s editing and sound work help to lift a story that seems at times almost a parody of the dark male family dramas that Coppola’s creativity has always fed on. Indeed, the plot has something of the melodramatic sweep and overwrought tone of an opera libretto.

Ehrenreich plays Bennie, a fresh-faced 17-year-old cruise ship waiter who turns up in Buenos Aires one day in search of his estranged brother Angelo (Gallo). Angelo is a gloomy, broodingly dark poet and playwright who now goes by the name of Tetro (an abbreviation of the family surname Tetrocini, but also an adjective meaning ‘gloomy’ and ‘broodingly dark’ in Italian).

Bennie and Tetro’s father Carlo (Brandauer) is a musician from an Italian émigré family in Argentina, who moved to the States where he is now a famous conductor. He’s also a domineering tyrant whom Tetro despises because of past events which are revealed in a series of flashbacks filmed in colour which rank among the film’s absurder moments.

Tetro, who first appears with his leg in a cast, has given up writing plays and resents the intrusion of his fresh-faced young brother. But, with the help of Tetro’s fiery but kind girlfriend Miranda (Verdu), Bennie decides to help his brother by secretly completing one of his unfinished plays and sending it off to a famous critic called Alone (Maura), a media superstar (Maura plays her as a cross between Oprah Winfrey and Barry Humphries).

A series of expressionistic touches - ballet inserts, clips from Powell and Pressburger’s The Tales of Hoffmann – build towards a cathartic third-act sequence (set among the glaciers of Patagonia) which does, finally, possess a sort of weird power. But it’s a long stretch to get there.

Production companies
American Zoetrope
Zoetropa Argentina
BIM Distribuzione

International sales
American Zoetrope
(1) 415 788 7500

Francis Ford Coppola

Mihai Malaimare Jr

Production design
Sebastian Orgambide

Editing and re-recording
Walter Murch

Osvaldo Golijov

Main cast
Vincent Gallo
Maribel Verdu
Alden Ehrenreich
Klaus Maria Brandauer
Carmen Maura
Rodrigo de la Serna