An 18-year-old American named Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich) tracks down his long-lost older brother, Tetro (Vincent Gallo), now living as a failed writer in a Buenos Aires artist colony. Bitter conversations and flashbacks gradually sketch what separated the brothers -- a deeply dysfunctional family of creatives (musicians, writers, singers, dancers) that proved to be more destructive than supportive. ("There is only room for one genius.") Can there be reconciliation, or are tragic family patterns doomed to repeat?
Francis Ford Coppola's film -- the first he's written since 1974's The Conversation -- starts slow, and grows increasingly intriguing, frustrating and torpid. It's deeply -- albeit openly -- self-indulgent: Coppola, too, is part of a sprawling family of competitive artists, and his chosen form of expression offers a flashy medium to both exorcise demons and establish authority. (Like Fellini -- whose works this film clearly tips its hat to -- Coppola can't resist appending other artforms such as ballet, opera and criticism, nestling them under his cinematic wing.)
For the most part, the film looks good, despite (or even because of) its indulgent digressions. (The film is in black and white, with some flashbacks and extra-narrative sequences in color.) Newcomer Ehrenreich is worth watching, and Maribel Verdu (Pan's Labyrinth) is great as Tetro's caretaker girlfriend. However, Gallo seems miscast, self-consciously engaged in his familiar gloomy-loser shtick.
This is not a great film -- parts feel clunky or overly melodramatic, the pacing haphazard, Gallo's somnambulant act tiresome -- but there's something nervy about the damn-the-torpedoes approach. Coppola is a silverback, yet the film often has the feel of a less-mature director, bursting to dump everything he learned from the Criterion Collection into one film. When the film coughs up an enigmatic drama critic known simply as "Alone," you don't know whether to laugh or marvel. In English, and some Spanish, with subtitles. Starts Fri., Oct. 30. Squirrel Hill