FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA UNCORKS HIS OWN FAMILY DRAMA

Francis Ford Coppola can’t get away from families, no matter what business they’re in.

At 70 years old, he’s the once and always director of two of the great film s ever made”The Godfather’ I and II. And then, of course, there’s ‘Apocalypse Now.’ These are huge landmarks in motion picture history, unprecedented and never replaced.

But Coppola has never equaled those successes. He’s opted for smaller ones (‘Peggy Sue Got Married’), to be a producer of note, and a Northern California vintner. He’s also produced an Oscar nominee daughter, Sofia, director of ‘Lost in Translation’ and ‘Marie Antoinette.’

On Thursday, Coppola came to Cannes but not to the official festival. Instead, his ‘Tetro’ opened the Directors Fortnight, the prestigious side festival that often produces surprise hits like ‘Control’ from two years ago.

Certainly the lines at 9am on Thursday were an indication of Coppola’s continued legacy. The crowds were massive an hour before the first showing of ‘Tetro’ at the theater under the former Noga Hilton (now known, ridiculously, as the Palais Stephanie).

Who knows what the mostly international audience thought as ‘Tetro’ unreeled for the first time. It’s possible that many of them did not come in knowing the ‘baggage’ that accompanies actor Vincent Gallo, brawling, coarse star of New York’s gossip pages. Gallo’s reputation precedes him as the New Yorker you’d most not want at your dinner table.

It turns out that on screen he is an abrasive, mostly repellant figure. It doesn’t help that his title character is exactly these things, an unsympathetic lout who snarls, pouts and flees when the going gets rough. He’s a charmless Sonny Corleone.

In a circuitous manner, ‘Tetro’ slowly reveals itself to be Coppola’s attempt to tell a story from his own family. His father, Carmine Coppola, and uncle Anton were each musicians, composers, and conductors. But Anton had the early fame and success. It wasn’t until Francis became a star director that he was able to showcase his father, who then flourished writing the scores to ‘The Godfather’ and other Coppola movies. His great success came in 1981 when Francis staged a live showing of the restored silent film, ‘Napoleon,’ with his father leading a symphony orchestra at Radio City Music Hall.

Coppola has reversed the story of the two musician brothers so that the successful one ‘ Tetro’s father’is the main character. He’s a world class conductor and a horrible man, who’s ruined his son’s life including claiming his grandson as his son. (It’s kind of ‘Falcon Crest’ meets ‘Star Wars.’) It’s Tetro’s kindly uncle who’s now the sympathetic brother. But even Coppola realizes the villain is more interesting, so conductor Tetroccini is the central player here.

All of this is set in Buenos Aires, which substitutes for the Coppola family’s Italy. Cinematographer Mihai Malaimare, Jr. shoots the city in gorgeous black and white, with bursts of gorgeously drenched color to show scenes from the Tetro’s terrible and haunted past. You see, Tetro is now a ex-pat writer and sometime mental patient who’s let himself be destroyed by dad. When Bennie, his much ‘younger brother’ shows up in the form of newcomer Alden Ehrenreich (a cross between Michael Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio), you know there’s going to be trouble. It doesn’t help that the big plot twist is what they used to call ‘telegraphed’ almost by Western Union. Maybe now they call it ‘twittered.’

And telegrams are a problem, too. When young Bennie arrives, he reminds his brother’s girlfriend (the welcome Maribel Verdu) that he sent them just that, a telegram, announcing his imminent arrival. He didn’t email or use a cell phone. What year is it, exactly? For a long time, no current means of communication are displayed. We see a manual typewriter. The black and white film, the attitudes, suggest a time in the recent past. So it’s a little funny when Bennie finally sits down to work on a play, and he’s using a brand new Apple laptop.

Coppola didn’t like it much at the Q&A after the screening when I asked about the autobiographical aspects of the film. He replied, ‘Nothing in this story happened, but everything is true.’ That information, and two bucks, will get you on the subway. The tag line for the film is ‘Every family has its secrets.’ My guess is the Coppola’s had theirs. Now the director has turned his memory of all that stuff into a kind of Playhouse 90 TV drama.

He certainly has nothing to prove. But ‘Tetro’ feels more than a little ‘retro’ and not quite the sophisticated piece of movie making you’d expect from Coppola at this point.’ It’s not the production. It’s the material. Coppola is too close to his sources. His screenplay feels like it has hidden asterisks that point to footnotes the audience doesn’t receive.

PS Just as a bit of trivia, on their Wikipedia entries neither brother Carmine or Anton Coppola mentions the existence of the other’only all their other family connections.

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