Film Review: TETRO

Directed and written by Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Vincent Gallo, Maribel Verdu, Alden Ehrenreich, Klaus Maria Brandauer

You can find laudatory reviews of this movie on many websites and in newspapers. I personally found it a frustrating, over-wrought and ultimately unsatisfying film. The primary source of much of my frustration lay in the casting of Vincent Gallo as Tetro. For me, he was completely implausible as a would-be writer, the son of a famous, if maniacally narcissistic, conductor. This background suggests a particular type of person, a sort of fellow that Gallo in no way embodied And if the central character in a film doesn’t work for you, nothing much good will follow.

The plot. Tetro’s been holed up in Buenos Aires since a falling out with his famous father, a conductor, many years ago. He works as a lighting technician for a small theater and lives with the lovely Miranda. Ostensibly he is a writer, blocked by his past. His teenage brother, Bennie, shows up, trying to find out what has happened to his brother. Tetro is not happy to see Bennie but eventually tolerates his presence. Their joint and separate pasts eventually play out much like the pieces of ballet and theater (THE TALES OF HOFFMAN, COPELIA, THE RED SHOES) that Coppola has threaded through the film. A manuscript for a play of Tetro’s turns up and Bennie finishes it and enters it in a contest in Patagonia. Family secrets play out in an operatic style.

There were too many scenes in TETRO that seemed to be in the film for no reason other than to provide local color or take up space. In an early scene, a wife tosses her husband’s things out of a window. How many times have we seen that? In fact, many of the scenes seemed to belong in another movie altogether—one by Fellini, perhaps. The mix of Italian, Spanish and American cultures didn’t work well for me. Its actual landscape seemed to be that of movies. (Not that this is necessarily a bad thing in itself). The scenes dealing with Latin culture seem almost to parody rather than celebrate it. Why does the younger brother speak no Spanish when their connections with Buenos Aires are so strong, for instance? Why do both brothers seem so unabasedly American when they have spent so much time in foreign places with foreign relatives?

On the brighter side, it was beautifully filmed (much of it in black and white) and the score was terrific. The rest of the cast played their parts well.

I think a lot of people will probably enjoy this film so I am hesitant to completely dismiss it. But I found it interminable and pretentious. If I didn’t know the director, I would have assumed him to be a novice, trying out various styles as he looked for one of his own. Plenty of things happen in this movie, but none of them feel organic, merely layered on operatically. But in an opera, we get to hear great music. Here we merely had Gallo’s overly emphatic nasal whisper.

Patti Abbott
Patti Abbott writes crime fiction short stories. She hosts a look at Forgotten Books every Friday with readers, writers and reviewers at She hopes you’ll join in.