Revisiting old dreams

TUNE INTO BLACK AND WHITE

Francis Ford Coppola.

Francis Ford Coppola turned 70 a couple of months ago, but he shows no sign of slowing down. After a frustrating decade with nary a directing credit to his name, now comes Tetro, which is his second movie in two years and is based on the first original screenplay he has written, directed and produced since The Conversation in 1974.

“I view this as the second film of my second career,” Coppola said late last month, shortly after returning from Cannes, where Tetro was described by European critics as somewhat uneven but intriguing, emotional and elegiac. “From now on I’m always going to be writing the scripts, and every film will be personal. I’m going to be the kind of filmmaker I wanted to be when I was beginning.”Tetro, with Vincent Gallo in the title role, covers some of the same territory, albeit from a different direction, that has fascinated Coppola since the time of the Godfather trilogy, which first made his reputation and his fortune. Once again he has filmed a drama about an Italian immigrant family in conflict, here called the Tetrocinis.

This time, however, the patriarch in question, played by Klaus Maria Brandauer, is a tyrannical orchestra conductor, and his sons are writers, not gangsters. And to the extent there is violence, it is emotional rather than physical, the product of a plot that revolves around a younger brother’s attempt to find and reconcile with an estranged sibling (Mr. Gallo’s character) who has broken with the family and fled.
Because Coppola’s father, Carmine, was a musician, a flutist who played for Toscanini in the NBC Orchestra before trying his luck as a composer and conductor, there is an obvious temptation to regard Tetro, which in Italian means ‘gloomy’ or ‘glum’, as autobiographical. Suggestions to that effect have already surfaced, but Coppola said that was not really the case.

“Granted that classical music was part of my life, but my father was a wonderful and talented man who didn’t get his break in life until much later and was nothing like the monster portrayed here,” he said. “Clearly I ran away from military school when I was 15 and idolised my brother. But everything ends at that. My family was far from what you see here. We didn’t have the kinds of rifts, the terrible things that Tetro has.”

“My story is more in the league of Tennessee Williams writing Blanche DuBois as an expression of his own vulnerability,” he added. “I think I am all the characters, but the kid is who I was. That’s my story.”

Tetro was made in Argentina, mostly in Buenos Aires in the bohemian neighbourhood of La Boca, with other scenes shot in Patagonia. Both locales, the one brightly colourful and the other spectacularly imposing, are unfamiliar to most Americans, but Coppola chose to film in black and white, in part because he wanted to evoke the mood of movies he admires, Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers and Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront in particular.

His long and uneasy relationship with Hollywood is over, he said, acknowledging that it would be difficult these days for him to get a green light from a studio for any project that interests him.

“My attitude is, ‘Who cares about them?’ ” he said. “It’s an industry that just makes the same movie over and over again and rules out a climate of experimentation.” Audiences are part of the problem too, he argues, because they have lost their sense of adventure and curiosity. “After two generations of television they are even more anxious to see things that are familiar to them, like kids who want to hear the same stories over and over again.”

On the set of Tetro, cast members said, the atmosphere was more like that of a low-budget indie film than of a Hollywood production. There were no trailers, even for the stars, and Coppola was constantly experimenting with ideas that had just occurred to him, often singing songs to keep the mood relaxed and playful.

The Spanish actress Carmen Maura appears in Tetro in the brief but crucial role of Tetro’s former mentor, an imperious critic with the power to make or destroy an artist’s career. She has worked with distinguished directors like Pedro Almodóvar, Carlos Saura, Amos Gitai and Fernando Trueba but said that Coppola had a style she had not encountered before. “It was an amusing and entertaining experience,” she said. “He’s a completely different kind of director. I liked his craziness. He was very friendly, simpatico and respectful, but you never know what he is going to ask, and he was full of surprises.”

Coppola has a history of finding and nurturing the talent of young actors. Tetro offered a similar opportunity to Alden Ehrenreich, who was 17 when he was cast and has just completed his freshman year at New York University.“The atmosphere Francis creates around him is extremely warm, inviting and collaborative,” Ehrenreich said when asked to explain Coppola’s success with young actors. “It’s like he provides the map, but you find what countries you want to visit. He doesn’t give you a specific laundry list, he invites you into the environment, and you decide how to interact.”

Coppola said he perceived a kinship between Tetro and Rumble Fish, his only other black and white film, which he shot in tandem with The Outsiders. “I don’t have a lot of time left, but I’m so in love with the cinema that I want to learn all I can about making movies,” he said. “I just want to write another screenplay and make another movie.”

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