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Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

Why Tetro Is the Best Film You’ll See This Year

That’s a bit of a misleading header, since the film was actually released last year, but it’s still true. I’m betting most of you folks never saw the movie since it was in and out of theaters so quickly, but you’re in luck because it was just released on DVD and Blu-Ray this past Tuesday. I’m talking of Francis Ford Coppola’s Tetro, his finest film since and possibly since The Conversation. That’s high praise, for sure, but I think the film has earned it.

The film follows a young man named Bennie who goes to Argentina to see his long-lost older brother named Tetro, who has been living for years in Buenos Aires. Tetro is a writer, but he never shows anyone his work. Both of the boys are the offspring of a famous composer (played by Klaus Maria Brandauer) who rules the roost and takes what he wants. He remarks at one point, “There is room for only one genius in this family.” Perhaps, we think, that’s why Tetro got the hell out of there.

I placed Coppola’s masterpiece on my year-end Top Ten list last year. I had it at number four, in fact. I think if I was going to do the list over again, I would place it even higher; I might even put it number one. It’s grown that much in my estimation as the months have gone by. Critics have referred to the film as “operatic” or “melodramatic” and I think they’ve used those words to dismiss it, as if realism is the only way to tell a story. I’m a big of realist films myself, but Tetro winds up hitting at real truths by telling its story boldly and with broad strokes. But those brushstrokes belong to a true artist and Coppola has returned to form.

Although, to be completely honest, I was one of the five people who actually loved Youth Without Youth. I found that its time-bending story was a fascinating experiment that sucked me in because of Tim Roth’s committed performance. It’s also a film that, like Tetro, seems intensely personal to the filmmaker, as it’s about a man who is struck by lightning and gets a second chance. Perhaps Coppola feels similarly struck by creative lightning and now has a second chance at the career he truly wanted from the beginning. Tetro was apparently even more personal to the filmmaker, who was inspired by his relationship with his father and by his father’s relationship with his uncle. Coppola said about Tetro: “Nothing in it actually happened, but it’s all true.”

This is a film about brothers and it’s also a film about fathers and sons. It’s about the promises we make in those relationships and how those promises – whether they are fulfilled, or especially if they aren’t – come to define who we are. When Tetro leaves, he writes a note to Bennie saying that he would come back for him one day. When Bennie finds Tetro, Bennie is still clinging to the hope that Tetro wants him around, that Tetro would have come back one day. The other interesting aspect of all of this is: how does it feel to be the brother who is left behind? And, also, how could Tetro leave Bennie behind with their father?

In a strange way, this film reminded me a lot of The Darjeeling Limited, Wes Anderson’s masterpiece about three brothers traveling through India hoping to find enlightenment. Tetro is about brothers as well and it’s also about a journey in a foreign land. But the journey is much more introspective in Coppola’s film. It’s really a journey towards unearthing the secrets of a family, the ones that are painful, the ones that people make art about rather than deal with.

The intimacy of this film is something that sticks with me as well. It’s tightly focused on three characters for most of the running time, with a fourth proving important as well. There is a big ensemble behind the main actors, as well, and they all have their parts to play and we grow to like and understand the rest of the gang. But it’s truly a tale about these two men, trying desperately to have a different relationship than their father had with his brother. That kind of intimacy, that kind of focus, is so important when you’re telling a story about siblings because nobody really knows you like a sibling can. And the relationship between Bennie and Tetro, the love that Tetro has for Bennie, is threatening to Tetro. He’s frightened to death of his love for Bennie because when you love someone that much, more than you can possibly love someone who isn’t your blood, it makes you that much more vulnerable. And Tetro, as we’ve learned, is someone who runs away from that kind of vulnerability, preferring to leave those kinds of emotions locked up in his journal.

If for no other reason, see Tetro because it has a breakout performance by Alden Ehrenreich as Bennie. Many folks have remarked that Ehrenreich is the “new DiCaprio.” Well, I don’t like that comparison and it’s not because DiCaprio isn’t a fantastic actor. I don’t like the comparison because it puts a ceiling on Ehrenreich and based on his performance in Tetro, I think there is no ceiling for him. If he were a rookie athlete, I would say that his upside his incredible and that he has all the tools to be a superstar. Just watch him on-screen, one of the remost charismatic young men since River Phoenix, and you’ll see just how magnetic he is. Mark my words, given the opportunity, he will be one of the best young actors we have.

I don’t want to take anything away from Vincent Gallo in the title role either. Gallo has had such a fascinating career, taking a circuitous route to being the lead in a Coppola film. I admire Gallo as a filmmaker – Buffalo ’66 and The Brown Bunny are nothing if not envelope-pushing and full of vitality – but I had never been particularly drawn to him as an actor. His acting style can be abrasive and off-putting, but in Tetro it works. He’s angry and tortured as many of his characters are, but here it’s because he’s an artist and a genius. He’s pushing people away because of a deep-seeded issue that he has. There is a reason behind angst. And when we find out that reason, oh boy it knocked the wind out of me. This is a film where the twist is not integral to the enjoyment of the film, but man does it help.

Did I also mention that this is one of the most beautiful movies I’ve ever seen? The black and white cinematography is stunningly gorgeous, the smoke from cigarettes billowing in the air like nothing I’ve seen, masking the actors’ faces, giving a dream-like quality to the proceedings. It’s as if Coppola saw Antonioni’s L’avventura a dozen times and decided, “I’m going to try and do that.” And not only does he effectively get the same sheen, but he improves upon it. This is black and white photography that is so crisp that it’s almost like I could touch it. Every line on the actors’ faces is clear and it gives the talent the largest possible canvas for them to paint on. It makes every performance better because we can so clearly intuit what they are feeling. This is a transporting film and Buenos Aires has never looked more inviting. I could easily throw this on before I went to sleep every night and dream of the images I’d just seen.

I’ve spoken a lot about the acting and the way the film looks and used a lot of platitudes to describe the movie, but why exactly is this film so amazing? Well, I just think of a flashback scene where Tetro’s girlfriend Miranda (played wonderfully and subtly by Maribel Verdu) recounts how she first encountered Tetro in a mental institution. Tetro was roaming around in a daze, constantly clutching his large manuscript to his chest, keeping it close to his heart. And while this is an image and an idea that is blunt in its symbolism, it’s a powerful one for anybody who has ever created anything. Art to an artist is something very close to your heart, something that you not only feel connected to, but something you feel protective of. And that protectiveness of his art – and his art is his way of expressing his inner turmoil (art = heart) – is a self-defense mechanism for Tetro, and indeed for most artists. We use our art, our writing, our filmmaking, as a means of expressing something we don’t know how to express otherwise and we clutch it tightly when we have nothing else.

That scene did it for me. When I think back on that scene, I am filled with joy. And watching it unfolding before me when I first saw it, I was mesmerized. See, it’s not just the gorgeous cinematography, it’s the way that photography helps us to see these characters and this place more clearly. It’s not just the fantastic acting, it’s that the acting helps us to see some kind of truth. It’s not just the writing, it’s the way in which the writing strives to explain something that is fundamentally unexplainable. The film might not be perfect, but it’s perfect to me. And I think it’s a movie that demands to be seen by everyone and rewatched by those who have seen it before. This is amazing filmmaking, people —  and if you disagree then I’d love to hear why.

Noah Forrest
May 10, 2010

Noah Forrest is a 26-year-old aspiring writer/filmmaker in New York City.

The opinions expressed in these columns are the writer’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Movie City News or any of its editors or other contributors.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

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~ David Simon