Tetro sees an artist coming out of his hibernation; still groggy and a little stiff in the joints, we can nonetheless recognize a welcome return of an American cinema of characters, of adults, and of maturity in no way pitched towards an ironic, alternative “independent” crowd. Stepping over the indulgence of Francis Ford Coppola’s official return to filmmaking, Youth without Youth, his new film has three major things going for it: it stars Vincent Gallo, is set in Argentina, and is shot in black and white (though digitally) by a filmmaker who clearly is watching great foreign films of the 60s, not to mention his American brethern of the 70s, rather than the television of the last decade. It may hinge almost entirely upon a quizzically under developed background of family turmoil and trauma (“ancient themes” as Gallo reflexively mentions), but the spirit of a filmmaker is definitely here.
This unconvincing backdrop makes the film more awkward and inconsistent than it should be, but the ingredients are right. The actors chosen and their performances —bodily, and beautifully elastic in the women (Maribel Verdú and Leticia Brédice), facial, sleepy and nursing in the men (Gallo and Alden Ehrenreich)— are inspired, even as Tetro moves superficially around them. When people talk about a film being a glimpse of what movies used to be like, they usually mean old Hollywood; but Tetro, understandably and with welcome, makes one think of past movies—of the new Hollywood of the 1970s. Emphasis on characters and the character of the space they live in catches us off guard because it makes us realize what has been missing from much of American cinema, which has moved on to other things in Coppola’s (and others) absence. What we sense here is real effort—though an effort couched in a George Lucas-esque feeling of an insulated production cut off from the present and the influence of collaborators. But still. This is a proper return, a strong connection to the past and a very hopeful indication of the future.