FILM RATING: 3 stars
Tetro (2009) is one of the most visually stunning black-and-white films I’ve ever seen. Not since Stephen Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) have I seen a film look so good without color. The crystal clear, inky black digital cinematography is simply spectacular. Every little detail of this finely crafted production shines through in every frame. Written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, this art house flick showcases every bit of his vast technical filmmaking experience. My only complaint is that the story suffers a bit from a lack of focus/clarity and emotional depth. Tetro goes right to the edge of really pulling me into the characters and the story, but then backs off, never crossing over into the absorbing cinema that I wanted it to. I will definitely revisit this film in a few years and see if there is something more there that maybe I missed. Some subtlety that takes Tetro from being good to outstanding. There’s no question that visually and artistically the film is outstanding, I’m just looking for an emotional connection to the story to elevate it above and beyond it’s technical merits. For now, I give the film 3 stars out of 5. I really want to give it 3.5 stars, but I just can’t convince myself right now to go any higher. Sometimes it just takes time to appreciate something more beyond your initial response.
The story of Tetro centers around two estranged brothers, one whose just turning 18 (Bennie) and the other whose much older (Angelo or ‘Tetro’ as he calls himself). Tetro abandoned his family many years before to go “find himself” as a man and an artist. Now living in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Tetro has abandoned his artistic expression as a writer and is living with a pretty miserable outlook on life. Bennie has come to find him now that he is old enough to leave home. Coppola’s story unravels slowly as we watch the reconnection of the two brothers and eventually find out more. I don’t want to say anymore since I think Tetro will be better if viewed with less knowledge of the story. Tetro is a cinematic journey best seen with no expectations I think. Vincent Gallo plays Angelo ‘Tetro’ Tetrocini. What a talented actor Gallo is! I’m amazed he hasn’t had a break into more mainstream acting gigs after all of his years of acting. Or maybe he doesn’t want that break. The only film other than Tetro that he’s been in that I’ve seen, or really even heard of, is Goodfellas (1990), but he just had a bit part in Scorsese’s gangster opus. Tetro definitely gives Gallo his due and it showcases his ability to engage a viewer through character development. Also phenomenal is newcomer Alden Ehrenreich who sizzles with fresh youthful exuberance and energy as Bennie Tetrocini. The first few minutes of the film, as well as all the way through the end, just pop as we see Ehrenreich showcase his great acting talents as well. He just has this face and body language that inhabits the screen well. And the chemistry between Gallo and Ehrenreich is perfect. I can’t wait to see how Ehrenreich’s career develops. The flaws I see with Tetro have nothing to do with these two fine actors and the rest of the supporting cast. It’s the story’s plot and writing that doesn’t come together as well as I would like. But all the parts for a great film were present. Tetro just needed that special nameless ingredient to gel them all together.
Director of Photography Mihai Malaimare Jr. did an unbelievable job on this small film. The lighting, the choice of lenses, and the compositions of the various shots really make this film look fantastic. There’s a great mix of classic and modern style to the cinematography, showing us close-up details that would’ve been hard to shoot without the small, lightweight digital cameras of our modern age, but there’s also an epic look and feel to the film at times that harkens back to the classic era of filmmaking in the late 30’s and 40’s. I could see the influences of Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock, both filmmaking masters in the use of strong light-and-dark contrasts in black and white photography. I’m also glad to see a film where handheld photography is NOT the main modus operandi. It seems like most films of the last decade have prioritized handheld shooting to a point where it’s become annoying to watch the camera move all the time for no real reason other than it can. I guess I’m a bit more classical in my thinking that the camera can just sit still and let the action take place on the screen by the subject matter. I don’t have to always actually feel the camera following the characters or the story.
Production Design by Sebastián Orgambide was great, with fascinating old-looking sets and locations all shot in Argentina and Spain. The film is set in the present, but it feels like the past. That nifty trick is obviously reinforced with the black-and-white photography, mixing old and new in a delightful way. I also like Coppola’s technique of using color photography, cropped to a more square TV/home video look to represent the past when showing us flashbacks to Tetro’s youth. The entire production is just so carefully crafted in each and every detail…and it makes the film that much more enjoyable. It’s one of those things where you don’t always notice it when it’s not in a movie, but you really do when it is.
While there is a lot to like with Tetro, it also has it flaws simply as a story that engages you. Like I’ve said repeatedly, Tetro looks fantastic. Technically its a filmmaking masterpiece that surely filmmakers and film schools will study and talk about for many years to come. I just wish the story left me with that same feeling. Still…don’t pass up the chance to see this film on Blu-ray or in HD on TV. I wouldn’t even bother watching this on DVD…I doubt that format would let this film sing in the ways it does.
I love the graphic design of the opening credits for Tetro. Very clean…classic yet modern…and set against abstract out-of-focus lights. Slick and cool!!