Tetro, by Francis Ford Coppola, his latest film, now out on DVD, is a sort of cinematic folly - a late-style work by an old man who can't possibly replicate his great early works: The Godfather, The Conversation, and Apocalypse Now, three of the greatest American films.  Coppola has made other stylish masterworks, too: The Godfather II, Rumblefish, and Dracula.  Tetro, shot in Buenos Aires, has elements of all his major films, and is in fact a not-subtle commentary on the life of fame ("don't look into the lights") and the absurdity of critical and commercial success.  Indeed, it's main Tragic core - how a family dominated by a cruel egomaniacal patriarch is sapped of life - clearly echoes The Godfather saga; but family issues - especially between brothers - have long been of interest to Coppola; as has been the absent, yet powerful father-figure who may be God (see "the Director" in The Conversation).

Most notably, Tetro's black and white scenes recall the beauty of Rumblefish and The Outsiders; while the rotten-fruit colour sequences bring to mind late Welles.  In fact, the references to The Magnificent Ambersons and Citizen Kane are many: from shadow play, to mirrors, to camp musical productions, to the shattered life-narrative being pieced together in a mirror. However, the strongest influence is the work of Powell and Pressburger, especially The Red Shoes - another film about a powerful dominating theatrical presence, and the life-expunging demands of Art.

Tetro fails elegantly - though directed, acted, and edited brilliantly - it lacks the urgency or imaginative interest that Kane has - there is no internal urgency, and the title character's reluctance to accept his destiny and gifts is more annoying than enigmatic - why should we believe the man has genius when he mostly resembles yet another shuffling chain-smoking wannabe writer with gaunt face and unwashed hair?  The film has a forced image of light and moths that borders on cliche, and the over-use of the trope of vehicular accidents and ambulances seems forced and trite - what is the objective correlative of a traffic accident?

However, while at turns languid, then overly-theatrical (some of the cabaret scenes are preposterously art-house), the movie impresses for being utterly alien to the demands of the current American scene - set in a remote land, and exploring issues of creativity and belonging that are more thoughtful and lyrical than one might expect from an American film.  Feeling very European, by way of South America's magic realism, this is actually a fine achievement, and if a younger woman or man had made it, it would have been seen as promising much.  As it is, it is a winding down of a mighty career.  I hope to see another few films from this master before his reel is done.


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