'Tetro': Art Damage, By Kurt Loder

Francis Ford Coppola in exile from his true talent.

Francis Ford Coppola's "Tetro" is such a beautiful movie to look at that you wish it had a less-overwrought story, one that might draw us into it. Photographed in glorious black-and-white (with rich, inky blacks anchoring a carefully modulated grayscale), and punctuated with splashes of eye-popping color, the picture is a riveting visual experience. But the tale it tells — of two brothers in flight from their imperious father — grows tedious, and in the end collapses into startling preposterousness.

Vincent Gallo plays Angelo Tetroncini, a man racked by obscure torment. Ten years ago, Angelo moved to Buenos Aires (where the film was shot) in order to write — a vocation his father Carlo (Klaus Maria Brandauer), a celebrated opera director, had derided. ("There's only room for one genius in this family," he told his son.) Was Carlo right? So far, all that Angelo has accomplished in the Argentine capital is to pare down his name to Tetro and to wallow in what seems a terminal case of writer's block, unable to come up with an ending for his attempted masterpiece, a play about a family that turns out to be most familiar.

One day, Tetro's half-brother Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich) shows up at the apartment Tetro shares with his devoted girlfriend, Miranda (Maribel Verdú). Bennie is a waiter on a cruise ship that has pulled into port for repairs. He hopes to learn why his brother ran off from the family all those years ago. But Tetro refuses to talk about the past; he's hostile and abusive to Bennie, but reluctantly agrees to take him in until his ship is ready to return to sea. Weathering his brother's mystifying, nonstop insults, Bennie undertakes to help Tetro finish his play, and to enter it in an upcoming theatrical competition, the Festival Patagonia, which is run by a distinguished critic called Alone (yes, Alone), who's played by the usually formidable (but here indifferently used) Carmen Maura.

The movie dawdles on and on; and while the 19-year-old Ehrenreich, in his first feature role, is clearly a newcomer to watch, Gallo's overbearing intensity is wearying. (Or maybe it's just the way that Coppola has written his character: Tetro's inscrutable agony is baffling; and when its cause is finally revealed, after what seems like a very long time, we're baffled anew by its thudding soap-opera triteness.)

The other actors are exceptionally skilful. Brandauer could nail the puffed-up paterfamilias in his sleep, but Verdú turns Tetro's ancillary girlfriend into one of the picture's most appealing characters. And some of the color sequences are breathtaking — especially the one in which two ballerinas are joined onstage by an orchestra conductor as seawater comes magically lapping in from the shadows. (The picture was shot by Mihai Malaimare Jr., and edited by Coppola's longtime collaborator, Walter Murch.)

But Coppola's script can't hold us, however tightly our eyes may be glued to the screen. In interviews, the 70-year-old director- a musician's son himself- has said that "Tetro" is his most personal film — the sort of art-house movie that early fame and fortune prevented him from making in his youth. But as was demonstrated by the first two "Godfather" films, and especially by his 1974 masterwork, "The Conversation," he thrives on meatier material. However deeply he may have plumbed his own heart for this movie, it's unlikely to pulse for many people beyond himself.

Don't miss Kurt Loder's reviews of "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3," "Moon" and "Away We Go," also new in theaters this week.

Check out everything we've got on "Tetro."

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