Upon visiting his younger brother Bennie at hospital Tetro, played with fiery sincerity by an assured Vincent Gallo, is furious to find the teenager deciphering the story Tetro abandoned and secreted long ago. It’s a story about another life, years ago when Tetro was known by his birth name, Angelo. Wrestling Bennie to the floor, the contempt seeping from Tetro is hidden only by the inky shadows Francis Ford Coppola’s breathtaking monochrome visuals cast over the enigma of the brothers lives.
The poetic photography seduces us into the illusion Tetro has crafted for himself in Buenos Aires, Argentina, after fleeing New York, and an egoistical father besotted by his own fame. The timeless black and white imagery combines with an instrumental score, bathing bohemian café’s in soft jazzy undertones and Latin American strings, creating an exotic haven to shroud Tetro’s tragic past. Soon after Bennie’s arrival at the film’s opening the illusion begins to crack, and the brothers’ past starts to leak out.
An old suitcase carelessly discarded atop a wardrobe contains the story Bennie seeks, which sparks such anger in the aforementioned scene. Scrawled haphazardly in an admittedly blatant code, Tetro’s autobiographical work is unfinished. Tetro no longer writes. When Bennie questions why he sarcastically replies that he has no pencil, yet in truth he cannot bear the emotions that will surface. Just as Coppola’s history is etched into the brothers’ family of artists, and the theme of strain suffered by artistic failure, Tetro will see the past he has buried in anything he pens.
As Bennie unearths their childhood painful memories are presented in coarse colour, framed like ugly home videos in stark contrast to the impossibly beautiful haven Tetro has forged. When Bennie fixates on bringing Tetro’s work to the stage the timeless setting becomes punctuated by laptops and mobile phones as the production entices interest, forcing the reluctant artist to face both the strains of modernity, and his traumatic past. As rehearsals begin, and Tetro’s history is laid bare, the colour flashbacks take the form of elaborate dances. The performers enact a tormented history amidst gorgeous expressionistic backdrops of bloodied highways and gushing waves. These pointedly artificial, computer generated sets symbolise Tetro’s emotions being forcefully relit, illuminating the violent shades of his past.
Unfortunately, as the brothers’ past becomes clear, so do the film’s flaws. The climactic scenes are littered with clichéd revelations, unravelling through dialogue and events that ooze melodrama. While poignant earlier scenes reflect Tetro’s tormented psyche, and the exotic cocoon he’s retreated to, if we consider the excess of latter scenes to symbolise the freeing of his emotions and artistic impulses then the crass plot developments reflect negatively on his character.
That the films beauty is strongest when Tetro’s psychological sanctuary still stands, its delicate walls under constant strain from guilt and regret, is perhaps testament that the artistic mind flourishes when in pain. Coppola has had his share of hardship, and has utilised this, along with his knowledge and love of cinema, to craft a work of intense visual splendour.