After watching Hunger last week (see post of 5/9), I've been thinking about the visual aspect of film. We've all seen movies that look great and leave a permanent imprint on us, but fail to achieve what we require to say "That was a great movie." You know, things like plot, action, special effects.
Francis Ford Coppola is a true master of the moving picture. When he succeeds in combining this talent with a strong story, we get The Godfather. No debate on the merits there. When he fails to connect, we get One from the Heart, the movie that bankrupted Francis. Heart is wrong-headed from the start - no story, weak leads (Frederic Forrest and Teri Garr could never carry a feature film). But it is a treat to watch -from the grandeur of a faux Las Vegas built on a sound stage, to Nastassja Kinksi writhing in a giant martini glass. Forget the story, embrace the images.
Coppola's family drama Tetro is his best work since 1979's Apocalypse Now. For me that is not faint praise. I loved Dracula, Tucker and Godfather III (I can sense your outrage. We can discuss this later). The present day scenes are shot in deep and warm black and white; the flashbacks are in color. The dated black and white is the now, the realistic color the then. It's a jarring device that works magnificently. Shadows are played to perfection, achieving both aesthetic heights and narrative relevance. Tetro (Vincent Gallo) is filmed in a chair, the darkness he emits right of a German Expressionist textbook. A scene with Miranda (the always provocative Maribel Verdu of Y Tu Mama Tambien) and Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich) is Bergmanesque but for the over sized phantom image of Tetro projected on the wall.
No surprise that Coppola nails the visual. The family drama, some bits surely autobiographical as it deals with a conductor father, works in so many ways. I read a biography of Francis once, but honestly don't remember very much of it. Was his own musical father Carmine like the cruel, overbearing Carlo? I don't know. As the maestro, Klaus Maria Brandauer lords over the film. I'd forgotten how great Brandauer can be; I have to admit I haven't seen him since 1990's The Russia House.
There's an awkwardness to how the main players interact. It could be bad acting, or a weak script, but I didn't see it that way. The story of one family's self-inflicted misery, and the physical and mental injuries they endure, is mirrored in their lack of connection. What do they have that brings them together as a family? Nothing. It's simply a formality of position: father, brother, son, wife. And why do these people, who by a fluke of birth are tied, have the right to violate the most privately held parts of one's soul? This discourse on the nature of family hit me hard.
It's a shame that a latter day work of genius like Tetro will be overlooked by a public who deems Coppola past his pop culture prime. How many will see this movie? Sadly, very few. But Coppola presents us with some real challenges. How do we merge our private and public selves? How do we accept the painful truths of who we are? What is the nature of family? Why must we avoid the far greater damage of trying to make the false real? These are crucial questions for us all to grapple with.