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Tetro Dazzles, Manipulates Magnificently

Marvel at the pyrotechnic kaleidoscope that is Francis Ford Coppola’s “Tetro!” Be amazed, as Vincent Gallo’s titular character somehow manages to chew every piece of scenery on screen! Be astounded by the sensual curves of Maribel Verdu’s Miranda, who’s kisses have the capacity to shatter glasses of champagne! Be wowed by Coppola’s operatic pretensions being projected in glorious black and white (and occasionally, color).

Tetro is a visually gripping film driven by smoke and mirrors, from the opening shot of a moth flying against a light bulb, to the closing city traffic that is rendered almost abstract by the camera’s lingering gaze. There is not a single frame of this film that doesn’t feel obsessively pored over, as if every moment needed to contain the very artistic integrity held so dear by its protagonist.

Coppola proves himself once again to be a more-than-able director. This is not a comment to take lightly. Critics once wondered whether or not the director, known for his misses (Jack, Dracula), as much as his hits (The Godfather, The Conversation), would ever reclaim his status as one of the titans of American filmmaking. While the non-technical aspects may leave something to be desired (the third act drags a bit), it is difficult to deny that this film, at the very least, points the way to further success both artistically and commercially for the filmmaker.

Viewers are presented with a tale of two brothers, separated at a young age. We have Tetro (Vincent Gallo), the damaged (quite literally, in the film’s first half) former writer who leaves his home on the cusp of adulthood to live in anonymity in Buenos Aires. It would be easy to dismiss his performance as over-the-top, melodramatic, and ham-fisted. But that wouldn’t be playing by the film’s rules. He is meant to be the epitome of all that is broken and fantastical. His obscenity-laden monologues and cryptic tossed-aside statements place him in the realm of Bukowski. It is very telling that when Tetro’s writings are discovered, they are written backwards. The only way to read them is to hold a mirror up to them. Only then can the truth of Tetro’s past be told. For that is all that he can write about. Later plot developments elevate him to the level of a certain classical Greek dramatic figure.

Tetro is “married” to Miranda, played by the lovely Maribel Verdu (who you may remember as Mercedes from Pan’s Labyrinth). Here, she comes across as beautiful, sympathetic, and tempestuous all at once. We also have Bennie (Alden Ehrenhreich), the baby-faced slack-jawed military school runaway who carries with him the symbol of his hope, the letter sent to him upon his brother’s departure. It has been ten years, and his brother promised to come back to rescue him from their troubled family. But it was not to be.

Beyond that, the audience is treated to a collage of a storyline, with set pieces ranging from a tonal performance of Faust, which soon devolves into a striptease, to extravagant dream sequences, which owe more than a little to the Powell-Pressburger ballet films “The Red Shoes” and “The Tales of Hoffman.” At moments, viewers will thank the gods of cinema for bringing them to Amherst Cinema on that particular evening. Although some of the later plot developments come across as somewhat clichéd, it is to the film’s credit rather than its loss. Only by emphasizing the main character’s oedipal elements, and letting the music swell with the sudden turns of events, can Coppola’s vivid depiction of melodrama unfold in a fully actualized manner.

 Although it is certainly flawed, Tetro garners 4 stars. It is too technically gorgeous and manipulative to be anything but the perfect encapsulation of classic melodrama that it is meant to be.

Mark Shiffer can be reached at msciffe@student.umass.edu.

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