Back to the Curzon, this time the Mayfair one, where I would live if it had beds and draft beer, to see Francis Ford Coppola’s return to form – and that’s quite a long way home, when you remember that his form was last truly apparent in 1987 (and that’s only if you found Gardens Of Stone as elegiac as I did). They had little leaflets about the film in the foyer, in which Coppola explains that he never set out to be a successful film director, but a playwright, or at least a writer, a storyteller. Which is why this film, Tetro, is so important. He wrote it, from scratch. The last time he did this was in 1974, with The Conversation, one of my Top 10 films of all time.
Coppola is, of course, a fine director, one of the all-time American greats. If he had only made The Godfathers Parts 1 and 2, two of my Top 10 films of all time, he would have earned his place in the Hollywood pantheon. But he also made the aforementioned Conversation during the same ridiculous purple patch, as well as Apocalypse Now, which is one of my Top 10 films of all time. One From The Heart and The Cotton Club may have been, ultimately, follies, but Rumble Fish, which is often forgotten in the confusion of filmmaking genius that typifies Coppola’s 70s and 80s, remains a lost gem. I remember it coming out in 1984 and being as excited about its release, following clips on Film 84, and props in the NME, as I would be in the same year about Stephen King’s Christine. (I purchased Stewart Copeland’s phenomenal soundtrack before seeing the film, lured in by the Stan Ridgway-sung Don’t Box Me In.) Rumble Fish was an art movie. I saw it a couple of years later at the Everyman in Hampstead, and loved it even more. Black and white, except for artful flashes of colour; revolving around the hero worship of an older brother who went away by a younger brother who stayed; a touch melodramatic … it turns out to have been a long-range dry run for Tetro.
Tetro, set and filmed in Buenos Aires, because Coppola liked the city and wanted to set it somewhere outside of the United States, is about two brothers, and the hero worship of the elder who went away by the younger who stayed. It’s in black and white, and the flashes of colour are more than flashes – entire sequences are in vivid colour, but only the flashbacks. It’s the same visual logic as Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter Of Life And Death, in which heaven is in black and white, and earth in infant Technicolour. Tetro makes less concessions to keeping its audience informed and entertained than Powell and Pressburger, but the sheer artistry is comparable. Casting the already iconic but notoriously pretentious Vincent Gallo as the elder Tetro seemed risky, but Coppola has focussed him as an actor, and naturally plays on his louche, charismatic reputation. Twenty-two-year-old Alden Ehrenreich is a revelation as the younger brother, Bennie (interestingly the same name as the pool hall propreitor in Rumble Fish who observes that the kids have “35 summers” left) – innocent and natural, which gives way to defiant and scheming as he is sucked into his brother’s orbit. Apparently discovered by Steven Spielberg in a bar mitzvah video he’d made, Ehrenrich is so much the new Leonardo DiCaprio I feel dumb for repeating it.
Fans of European cinema will appreciate the casting of Maribel Verdu (Y tu mama tambien), Carmen Maura (most of Almodovar’s films) and Klaus Maria Brandauer (still best known for his work with Istvan Szabo). This is an American film, made in South America, with a distinctly European flavour. It’s what Coppola is all about. Just as the awful Godfather III strove too hard for an “operatic” feel (hey, it ends at an opera), Tetro achieves one. It looks stunning, at every turn, whether a guitar is being thrown from a balcony in the midday sun, or the darkness of a tiny theatre is pricked only by a harsh spotlight (shades, I felt, of Bergman), you can feel the care and attention Coppola has paid to his first personal picture for over 30 years. At one point, an argument takes place between the two brothers, and Tetro’s girlfriend (Verdu), where Tetro is represented only by his shadow on the back wall. Sublime.
It’s a bit too long, though, and in that sense, drags its feet, perhaps even strays into self-indulgence. But the relationship between Bennie and Tetro mutates the whole time, and a real sense of time passing is effortlessly achieved. (You think of the fast-moving clouds and the pool hall clock in Rumble Fish, and see how much harder this film works to say similar things without being totally obvious.) I was tired, and dulled with beer, and it was a hot night, so I will admit I drifted off on a couple of occasions, but that wasn’t the film’s fault, it was mine. The ending pulled me out of my doze, and I didn’t see it coming.
Francis Ford Coppola: I am reminded of Dennis Hopper’s line in Rumble Fish, describing the predicament of his eldest son, played by Mickey Rourke: “He’s merely miscast in a play. He was born in the wrong era, on the wrong side of the river … With the ability to be able to do anything that he wants to do and … findin’ nothin’ that he wants to do.” He’s found it now.