Francis Ford Coppola may never again craft a classic like The Godfather, but after years spent toiling on bland studio fare – as well as 2007's ambitious, muddled Youth Without Youth – the director regains his mojo with Tetro, a saga of familial strife and Oedipal conflict equally indebted to '60s euro cinema and the theatrical traditions of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. An independently financed gem, Coppola's first self-penned film since 1974's The Conversation is shot in lustrous black and white and marked by an old-school formal proficiency that's highlighted by an endlessly intriguing and expressive frame. It's also rife with echoes of the past, in terms of its cinematic forbearers – including The Godfather, and its focus on the shadow cast by titanic father figures on sons – as well as its narrative proper, which concerns the reunion in Buenos Aires of 18-year-old Bennie (newcomer Alden Ehrenreich) and his older brother Tetro (Vincent Gallo), the latter of whom up and left home years prior on a writing sabbatical and was never heard from again. As is slowly revealed, his departure was spurred by both men's father Carlo (Klaus Maria Brandauer), a world-renowned symphony conductor whom Tetro disdainfully refers to as "The Great Man" and whose stature, and accompanying egomaniacal behavior, caused an unspecified rift that hasn't yet healed.
The opening image of Tetro gazing, with a mixture of fascination and fear, at a sizzling light bulb encircled by moths is merely the first of many images (many of white-hot lights) that speak to the character's disgust for spotlight stardom, which is personified by his domineering, treacherous father. With understated grace, Coppola allows his subsequent story to develop in a manner at once highly stylized and yet organic, his symbolic gestures always shrewdly integrated into the primary plot and unfettered by unnecessary explanatory exposition. Still, at the outset, such representational flourishes are kept to a minimum as the writer/director lays out his central dynamic. Having fled the nest via work aboard a cruise ship, Bennie's boat experiences engine trouble and ports in Buenos Aires, where he seeks out the brother he deeply loved and aspired to be like, and who promised years earlier in a farewell letter to return and liberate him from his hellish home life. Upon being warmly welcomed by Tetro's wife Miranda (Y Tu Mamá También's Maribel Verdú), however, Bennie quickly learns that Tetro is uninterested in catching up, his attitude to this get-together apparent from an introductory entrance in which he bursts through French doors, on crutches, with the angry, confrontational force of a hurricane.
Having changed his name (from Angelo) in a figurative act of divorce from lineage, Tetro slowly warms to Bennie's presence, though as the younger sibling's arrival portends a looming confrontation with past events he's long shunned, Tetro remains on edge, a state well-suited for Gallo's canny, squirrel-edgy eyes and simultaneously reserved and – on a moment's notice – taut physical comportment. Coppola bestows great care and empathy on his uniformly superb leads' faces, with close-ups exuding a compassion and understanding that cuts through the characters' emotional and psychological defenses. As in Williams, traumatic secrets lurk in the shadows waiting to be revealed. Coppola, however, exhibits no desire to force-feed, teasing out details of those fateful mysteries through color flashbacks and gorgeous, melodramatic opera sequences (modeled after The Tales of Hoffman's chapter about a living doll's tragic fate) – all of which are delicately edited by Walter Murch and enlivened by Osvaldo Golijov's mournful score – that are posited as memories and/or ruminative flights of fancy. These and other import-laden elements (also including a cross-dressing nightclub production of Faust) accumulate at a pace that never overwhelms, thereby allowing revelations to spring forth naturally from the interior and exterior action at hand, and thus resonate with seismic impact.
In Tetro, the present is inextricably rooted in the past, such that defining car crashes are almost exactly repeated and "genius" Tetro's scrawled autobiographical manuscript – an uncompleted tome that landed him in a mental hospital where he met and fell in love with his doctor, Miranda, and which Bennie intends to transcribe and stage – can only be deciphered via mirrors, which Coppola repeatedly uses to highlight his characters' isolation and self-reflection. Father-son and apprentice-teacher tensions come to a head during a third act that slightly loses its footing courtesy of "Alone" (Carmen Maura), a theater critic who once served as Tetro's mentor, and whom the writer/director employs both as a subtle dig at critics and as a clunky vehicle for further dramatizing Tetro's final rejection of influential, luminary authority figures and the fame and fortune he views as a cancer. Nonetheless, if the film momentarily falters at the beginning of its climax, it ends in bravura form, with Bennie's cathartic exposure, repudiation and destruction of paternal control, and his heartfelt reconciliation with Tetro amidst a blinding chorus of separating and conjoining headlights, imbued with a manic, sweaty fury and poignancy that typifies Coppola's sweeping epic, and confirms the director's triumphant return to form.