Tetro and Youth Without Youth – Twin masterpieces from a once great director

I love Apocalypse Now. It is one of my very favorite films ever made. I love all three entries in the Godfather Trilogy, although I naturally prefer the first two to the third. I think The Conversation is a master class in post-Hitchcock tension, only rivalled by Brian DePalma’s output in the early 80’s. And yet somehow, every time someone mentions Francis Ford Coppola, director of all four, as one of the greatest directors ever to make a film, I have a small spasm, just this side of a gag reflex. Coppola made four of the greatest films ever, yes, but his work since then has largely left me cold, or worse, provoked loathing. That is, until his most recent films, following a break beginning in 1997, when after he finished The Rainmaker Coppola decided to focus on his family, and perhaps also his wine. In 2007 he returned to the big screen with a self-financed Youth Without Youth and then again in 2009 with Tetro. Both are stunning achievements and place him back amongst the cream of this generation, a place he hasn’t been in over 25 years.

Youth Without Youth
Youth Without Youth
is an altogether strange film. It is set on the eve of WWII in Romania, and features a linguistics professor who has just turned 70 years old. That professor, Dominic Matei (Tim Roth), has come to realize that his life has been lived, that he can make no more progress in his field, and that all of his previously held ambitions are inevitably doomed to failure. He is a broken man who has nothing left to live for. So he decides to commit suicide. However, on his way to do so, he is struck by lightning.

The lightning blast, which should have killed him, actually rejuvenates Dominic to the appearance of being 40. It also begins to bestow strange gifts upon him. Dominic is able to read books without opening them, and learn languages faster than any human. He even develops, from time to time, a sort of telepathic/telekinetic ability. He has become the Übermensch that the Nazis seek, and as a result must flee.

After the war, he meets a woman hiking in the Alps, one who strangely resembles the love of his life from what is now 50 years ago. He believes that she is the reincarnation of that woman, and as such pursues her. She becomes aware at one point of her past lives, and like Matei is able to speak many languages fluently as a result.

The story continues, but it feels like trying to explain it fully would require me to describe the film in its entirety. This film exists beyond the events that occur in it, though. The characters may go from place to place, and get into any number of adventures, but this is one of the rare films that can be called epic without a 3 hour runtime. It seems to capture a man’s life, not just one thing that happens to him, but the complete collection of his experience.

I didn’t think it was possible for Coppola to do any better than Youth Without Youth when I popped this in the DVD player. The apex of his abilities is long behind him, I thought, and the rest of the films he makes will each be just about as good, give or take, as his last. But Tetro didn’t just blow that one out of the water; it very nearly outshone every film he has ever done, and with Coppola, that is saying something.

Benjamin Tetrocini has run away from home, where he feels oppressed by his rich parents and their strict way of doing things. He signs up to work on cruise ship and ends up in Buenos Aires, the city to which his brother fled over ten years ago and has not been heard of since. Bennie’s expectations are bound to be thwarted.

Angelo (Vincent Gallo), his brother, has renamed himself Tetro and become something of a rogue poet down here in South America, only he has given up writing because he thinks nothing can come of it. At first he rejects his brother, but then allows him to stay after being pressured by his wife (Maribel Verdu, Pan’s Labyrinth). The film follows their relationship over the next week or two as they get closer and drift further apart, only to climax when they each learn the secrets that have caused their decade-long separation.

In a sense, Tetro works as a counterpoint to The Godfather films. It explores, again in a mere two hours, a vast range of familial complexities, except here there is no trust, there is no love. There is only what they forge as expatriates. This is the story of a broken family, torn apart as if by wild dogs, and only one naive enough to think it can be repaired.

One of the things that binds these films is that they are both shot by Romanian cinematographer Mihai Malaimare, Jr., who was unknown beforehand. His photography is beyond praise, it can only be experienced. That said, with two films (even with just the one, four years ago) he is immediately placed in the upper echelon of DP’s working today (the rival of Elswit and Lubezki, for my money).

The other striking thing that connects these films has to do with the man behind the curtain. I have thought, ever since I saw the groundbreaking documentary Hearts of Darkness, that Coppola virtually lost his mind working on Apocalypse Now. After completing that film, he either could not, or chose not to, peer that deeply into the abyss. This explains the lack of luster in his subsequent work. But the ten-year break he took (which runs parallel to Tetro’s) allowed him to mellow out, and figure out what he wanted to do in the cinema. He was able to get his bearings and begin again. The result is two films, both of which are technically bold, making assured statements  that only a seasoned director could make. But they are also strangely stylistic and fresh, as if born out of the hands of a much younger director who does more experimentation.

Coppola has been reborn. He has retained his abilities from the high point in his career, and like a phoenix from the ashes, has begun to create masterpieces once more. This sort of thing happens so rarely, that I have to admit I am excited for him more than most of the directors that I follow; to see where he goes and what he tries out. He may have disappeared for ten years like Tetro did, but he has come back a younger man, like Matei. He has been struck by lightning and offers us the wisdom that his old age allows him, by the flexibility and genius afforded his newfound youth.

His newest film, inspired by a dream he once had, is due out this year. He describes it as a gothic-horror type film, resembling the works of Hawthorne or Poe. It was previously titled Twixt Now and Sunrise, but the title has been cut down to simply Twixt. When it comes out, you can be sure that I will be among the first to see it, and there will be a review up on this site as soon as possible. But for the first time in a very long time, I have absolute faith in the old man, that he will continue this string of films in the way that only he is able to. Coppola is undoubtedly one of the greatest living directors.

-Ben Creech

*- Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images Europe

One response to “Tetro and Youth Without Youth – Twin masterpieces from a once great director

  1. Pingback: Comic-Con Round-Up: Spider-Man Amazes, Del Toro’s Best Effing Robots & Monsters, & Coppola Edits Film Live | The Filmsmith

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