Tetro (2009) is unique because it's one movie I went into having next to no knowledge of what to expect. With a given movie, I usually read several reviews and plot descriptions before deciding whether to invest my time, but I watched Tetro because it is only the second movie this millennium directed by Francis Ford Coppola, the genius behind the first two Godfather films and Apocalypse Now (he also made Godfather III and Jack, so I did have reservations).
Except for a few flashbacks, Tetro is filmed in black-and-white, and I can't imagine any other format. There are a lot of shadows cast on the walls and over the actors. Some shots are completely black except for a small sliver of face or faces. A heavy melancholy hangs around these characters, and much of the story involves family legacies and histories and living in the shadow of a more accomplished father.
Living in Buenos Aires, failed writer Tetro (Vincent Gallo) has cut himself off from his family and past, mainly his famous composer father, and he is angered when his much younger half-brother Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich) shows up at the door in the middle of the night to stay for a few days, although Tetro's lover Miranda (Maribel Verdu) is pleased she can finally learn what he refuses to discuss. Bennie has always hero-worshiped Tetro and dreamed of becoming a writer too, and he is crushed to find Tetro a wreck. He always kept the letter Tetro left him promising to return for him. In the apartment, Bennie finds a hidden manuscript of Tetro's writing and begins to understand Tetro's guilt and resentment toward their family.
I really can't say much more. There's not much of a plot so much as its character revelation and interaction. You could say nothing happens, and you can say everything happens. Feelings are hurt, secrets divulged, lives reassessed, and the past resurrected. It can be melodramatic at times, especially when Coppola includes theatrical performances and operatic dances, and while those can be distracting at times, they're beautifully photographed. We learn more about the characters as the film progresses, and they never fail to compel. All the actors are all quite good.
Coppola does lose way in the last twenty minutes as more characters are brought in, events become hectic and confused, a festival and play occur, and a bombshell of a secret is dropped. I won't spoil it, but instead of blowing my mind, it raised questions as to how it worked. And as I said before, the singing and dancing material can distract at times; I much preferred the quieter character moments when the scope and locations were limited. But none of that detracts from the excellence of the first 100 minutes.
While it's no Godfather, Tetro proves Coppola still has it after all these years.