“What the studios want now are ‘risk-free’ films, but with any sort of art, you have to take risks. Not taking risks in art is like not having sex and then expecting there to be children.” —Francis Ford Coppola
In the 1970s, no filmmaker took artistic and financial risks more boldly than Francis Ford Coppola. After attracting notice with small personal works like The Rain People (1969), Coppola began a series of ever-more ambitious works that were increasingly paid for out of his own pocket while he simultaneously tried to create high-tech filmmaking utopia at his San Francisco-based Zoetrope Studios. The Godfather (1972), The Conversation (1974), The Godfather: Part II (1974), and Apocalypse Now (1979) were all cinematic and commercial successes, but his levels of personal risk grew with each project. Both his career and studio were brought crashing down by the failure of his big-budget musical One from the Heart (1982).
Burdened with massive debts, Coppola spent years wandering the cinematic wilderness as a “director-for-hire.” A number of good, underrated films emerged from this period, including Rumble Fish (1983) and Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988) whose story of a wild dreamer brought low by commercial interests can be read as a metaphor for Coppola’s own story. After The Rainmaker in 1997, Coppola didn’t make a film for ten years.
In 2007, Coppola began getting back to his roots as an independent writer-director. Using the profits from his successful winery, Coppola made Youth Without Youth, a fascinating but muddled adaptation of Mircea Eliade’s novel about a professor whose life is transformed by a bolt of lightning. Like a mute who is suddenly able to speak, Coppola buried viewers in a dizzying torrent of baroque imagery and mad plot twists. Now, Coppola has hit his stride with the more restrained but far stronger Tetro. Appropriately for the man who has been most famous in recent years as the father of filmmaker Sofia Coppola, his new work is an exploration of the rivalries and intense dynamics within a family of artists, all competing for inspiration and recognition.
Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich), a teenager with dreams of becoming a writer, goes to Buenos Aires in search of his brother, Tetro (Vincent Gallo), a novelist who is living in anonymity to escape the long shadow of their famous orchestra conductor father (Klaus Maria Brandauer). Bennie is brimming with questions about their past, but Tetro just wants to live in solitude. However, Bennie refuses to stop shaking things up until the family secrets start tumbling out.
Although the film sometimes goes off the rails with too many shocking revelations, Tetro is an exciting and powerful drama that crackles with energy and creativity. With its stylish black-and-white imagery, Coppola’s latest film feels less like the measured work of an old master than the brash debut of a young filmmaker showing off his seemingly limitless imagination and visual style. At age 70, Francis Ford Coppola is experiencing a second artistic childhood and we are the beneficiaries of his artistic renaissance.