Film Length: 127 min.
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
HD Encoding: 1080p
HD Codec: AVC
Audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Subtitles: English; English SDH; Spanish
Disc Format: 1 50GB
Theatrical Release Date: June 11, 2009
Blu-ray Release Date: May 4, 2010
Tetro is the second film written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola after a ten-year absence from the director’s chair. Like its predecessor, Youth Without Youth, it’s what Coppola calls a “personal” film – one financed and made entirely outside the Hollywood system, so that Coppola was free to make it just as he wanted. The upside is that Coppola created a unique and gorgeous work, amply fulfilling the tantalizing promise of Youth Without Youth, which, for all its fascination, remains a frustrating enigma. The downside is that Tetro got almost no theatrical distribution. That omission has now been remedied by an excellent Blu-ray from Lionsgate.
It is impossible to give a detailed summary of Tetro’s plot without revealing developments that first-time viewers should be allowed to discover for themselves. Although the basic themes are elemental – fathers and sons, brothers in conflict – the film expresses them through specific, even eccentric, details of place and personality, with events that always have a purpose, even when they seem to be wandering. Coppola says in the commentary that he was deliberately trying to write something that harkened back to his college years as a theater student, when the writers he most admired included Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill.
One can recognize the influence of such writers in the choice of subject matter and even in the intensity of the characters’ relationships. But Coppola remains first and foremost a filmmaker, and Tetro is pure cinema. For starters – and let’s get this out of the way up front – it’s in black and white. What major studio would make that today?
Just shy of his eighteenth birthday, Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich, in his first major role) arrives in Buenos Aires, where the cruise ship on which he works has put in for repairs. In fact, Bennie took the job as a way to get to Buenos Aires, because he’s searching for his brother, Angelo (Vincent Gallo, in a role originally written for Matt Dillon). Angelo left the family when Bennie was a small boy. Bennie finds Angelo living with Miranda (Maribel Verdú from Y tu mamá también). While Miranda is warm and welcoming, Angelo is anything but. Among other things, he informs Bennie that he no longer uses the name “Angelo”. He is now known only as “Tetro”.
Miranda knows little of Tetro’s past – the story of how they met is one of the many plot points that viewers shouldn’t know in advance – and Bennie’s arrival brings up uncomfortable issues. Tetro is haunted by memories of his early life, and these punctuate the film, sometimes as literal memory, sometimes as fantasy sequences strongly influenced by the Powell and Pressburger masterpiece, The Tales of Hoffman, which Tetro took Bennie to see when Bennie was a boy. These “interior” sequences (plus an excerpt from Hoffman) are the only color scenes in the film, and they’re presented at 1:85:1 set in the middle of the frame. As the film progresses, they become increasingly fantastical, and not until the very end does their full significance come into focus.
A figure who looms large in Tetro’s memories is Carlo (Klaus Maria Brandauer), Bennie’s and Tetro’s father. A world-famous conductor, composer and musician, Carlo is privately a monstrous egotist who has suffocated everyone around him. He bullied his own brother, Alfie (also played by Brandauer), himself a talented conductor, into performing under a different last name, so that Carlo’s reputation wouldn’t suffer from any comparison, unfavorable or otherwise. He married multiple times (Tetro and Bennie have different mothers). And when Tetro announced his desire to become a novelist, Carlo dismissed his ambitions, saying, “There’s only room for one genius in this family.”
As if to fulfill Carlo’s edict, Tetro has (in his own phrase) “walked away” from his writing, after a promising start as a protégé of Argentina’s most influential literary critic, a regal celebrity who writes under the pen name “Alone” (the great Carmen Maura, an Almodóvar veteran). But Alone and Tetro fell out, as often happens in the literary world, and Tetro locked all his manuscripts in a suitcase and put them away. Tetro is moody and unhappy, Miranda tells Bennie, because he really is a genius, but he has no accomplishments. Then Bennie finds the suitcase containing the manuscripts and begins to decipher them. You may think you know what happens next, but you don’t.
(Side note: For any reader who is thinking at this point, “A critic called ‘Alone’? Give me a break!”, be advised that such a critic actually existed. On the commentary, Coppola describes the sources from which he created this composite character.)
Tetro and Alone are reunited twice during the film. The first reunion occurs when Alone suddenly appears at the performance of a new (and dreadful) play entitled Fausta at a local theater run by one of Tetro’s friends. Tetro is working the lights – a job he enjoys because, as Miranda tells Bennie, he gets to be like the Phantom of the Opera. The second is at a literary festival that Alone sponsors in Patagonia (a kind of Argentine Cannes), and it is during the drive to Patagonia with Bennie, Miranda and others that the bright lights reflecting off the majestic glaciers spark Tetro’s most intense . . . what can one call it? Not a literal memory, too nightmarish to be a fantasy, it’s no less than a waking dream. It’s also one of the most beautiful sequences in the film.
The film opens with an image of Tetro staring into a bright light around which a moth is fluttering, and the sound of the moth surrounds the viewer. Both the bright light and the sound of the moth recur at strategic points throughout the film. They work like motifs in a poem: resonant with meanings that deepen every time they return. As for the family drama, it ultimately achieves a clear and intelligible resolution, but that is all I will say.
Not only is Tetro in black-and-white (except for the “interior” sequences), but the shooting style is also unusual by today’s standards. Coppola and his cinematographer, Mihai Malaimare, Jr. (the Romanian DP who also shot Youth Without Youth) hardly ever move the camera. They frame the scene, lock it down and stage the action within a fixed frame, which is then lit as if it were a still photograph. The result is a beautifully balanced sense of composition, complemented by an almost physical sense of the textures surrounding the characters. (Malaimare says in the extras that he was pleased to discover how much more texture he could capture in the image once the color was dropped out.) Coppola may be shooting in digital, but his approach has allowed him to make a film that looks classical. Tetro has the deep blacks and the numerous differentiated shades of gray that we expect from much older movies and that contemporary cinematographers find almost impossible to create with current film stocks.
The Blu-ray reproduces these shadings and textures almost flawlessly, with only one telltale sign of digital involvement. Every so often, on a horizontal edge or a surface with closely spaced horizontal lines (e.g., a shutter), there is the slightest shimmer that reveals the limits of 2K digital resolution. (I sometimes see the same phenomena on film-originated projects that have passed through a digital intermediate at 2K.) We will someday be at a point where cost factors and formats have surpassed these limitations, but we’re not there yet.
The color sequences are beautifully saturated, but not overly so. Many of them were done on a soundstage that was entirely outfitted with bluescreen, and the surroundings were created digitally months later at an effects house. The work is seamless and well presented.
I saw Tetro in a theater projected on film. The image on this Blu-ray, which did not go through an interim analog stage, is at least as good and possibly superior.
The soundtrack for Tetro was mixed by Coppola’s long-time collaborator, Walter Murch, who is one of the best in the business. Murch never places a sound without a purpose, and he never does something on a track just because it’s “cool”. In the opening sequence, he surrounds you with the flapping of the moth wings in all of the speakers, because it’s disturbing. You never see the moth again, but when Murch brings back the sound at key points in the movie, you don’t have to. And whenever the sound comes back, there’s always something added that alters the sensation.
There are plenty of ambient noises of Buenos Aires life in Tetro, but the real artistry is in the “subjective” sounds, such as those that move us in and out of the “interior” color sequences, or that reflect a character’s point of view. Even something as simple as a door slamming open when Tetro walks in on Bennie the morning after he first arrives has been carefully considered; it’s just a little too loud, making both Bennie and the audience jump.
Then there’s the musical score, which consists of both classical selections and original compositions in a kind of jazzy, smoke-filled café style by Osvaldo Golijov. Murch weaves these in and out of the soundscape with his usual mastery, and they’re a pleasure to hear.
The DTS lossless track is the only option on the disc. It reproduces Murch’s work with precision and fidelity. It’s one of the best tracks I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing this year.
Commentary with Director Francis Ford Coppola and Actor Alden Ehrenreich. Coppola and Ehrenreich were recorded separately and their comments are intercut.
Ehrenreich was the same age as Bennie and graduated high school during the shoot. He’s both enthusiastic and articulate about the experience of working with Coppola and Gallo, with whom he shared many intense scenes. Contrary to Gallo’s reputation, Ehrenreich found him approachable and helpful.
Coppola’s comments are far more extensive, and they’re fascinating. He not only talks about Tetro, its origins, development and style, but he also reflects on his own career and the film industry in general. Even Coppola’s most casual comments are fraught with the weight of one of the most unusual and, by any measure, significant biographies in modern American film. There are moments when he almost seems to pull back. One such moment occurs when he characterizes Tetro’s walking away from his writing as “walking away from the Oscar”. Coppola pauses at that point, as if he’s just said too much.
The Ballet (HD) (8:06). Coppola discusses the development of the ballet sequences featured in the film and their purpose.
Mihai Malaimare, Jr.: The Cinematography of Tetro (HD) (8:33). Just as the title indicates. Of particular interest is the fact that Coppola envisioned the film as 2.35:1 and black-and-white from the very beginning, and so advised Malaimare. As a result, the DP could begin imagining the film’s imagery from the moment he read the script.
The Rehearsal Process (HD) (8:33). This featurette includes interviews with Coppola, Gallo and Ehrenreich. Coppola is well-known to love rehearsal, and Gallo is well-known to hate it. But Coppola’s approach is so unusual that he won Gallo over. To find out how, watch the short.
Osvaldo Golijov: Music Born from the Film (SD; enhanced for 16:9) (9:16). An interview with the film’s composer.
La Colifata: Siempre Fua Loco (I’ve Always Been Crazy) (HD) (5:47). This short consists of location footage from a psychiatric hospital in Buenos Aires that appears briefly in the film. The hospital is famous, because it hosts a weekly radio program called “La Colifata” as a therapeutic exercise in which patients are allowed to speak on the air. After reading about it, Coppola decided to incorporate it into the script for Tetro.
Fausta: A Drama in Verse (SD; enhanced for 16:9) (4:34). The complete performance of the terrible play for which Tetro works the lights, up until the moment when the audience begins to leave.
Tetro End Credits (HD) (3:32). In the commentary, Coppola says that he was proud to end Tetro with simple credits that list the cast and the copyright date, then end. He says that he feels responsible for the lengthy credits that currently extend every movie by as much as seven minutes, because on THX-1138 (for which he was executive producer) they listed everyone who worked on the movie in lieu of being able to pay them properly. This extra provides what is now the standard long credit sequence, with everyone included.
Trailers. At startup the disc plays trailers for Precious and Brothers. These can be skipped with the chapter forward button and are also available from the special features menu.
At numerous points in his commentary, Coppola expresses puzzlement that viewers of Tetro refer to it as “operatic”, because (as he correctly notes) there’s no opera in it. There is ballet, as befits a film for which The Tales of Hoffman is a major point of reference. By the end, though, Coppola seems to throw up his hands and resign himself to being forever associated with films of operatic scale.
There are worse fates. As Coppola himself admits, the essential conflicts at the heart of Tetro are primal family rivalries whose dramatic import goes back to the Greeks. (Not to mention the Bible: Tetro features two sets of brothers, either of which could be Cain and Abel.) Besides, Coppola’s best work has always been about big emotions. Think of the intense family loyalties in Godfather I, the anguish of betrayal in Godfather II, the horror of civilization dissolving in Apocalypse Now, or the love and bloodlust of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Few filmmakers better understand the exquisite tension that results when passionate surges of feeling are harnessed and controlled by the meticulous craftsmanship of cinematic narrative, with all of its parts working together (performance, imagery, sound, costume, editing). The parts didn’t come together in Youth Without Youth, but they do in Tetro to thrilling effect. Seeing it was one of the most exhilarating experiences I had in a theater in 2009, and if you love cinema, I can’t recommend it too highly.
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (DTS-HD MA decoded internally and output as analog)
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
SVS SB12-Plus sub