It took me a while to catch up with Francis Ford Coppola's "Tetro,'' released last year and regarded by both its boosters and detractors as a return to edgy, experimental filmmaking. The feature film, shot with digital cameras on location in Argentina - namely, Buenos Aires and Patagonia - is beautiful to look at, has a knotty emotional core, rides on the success of strong acting and effortlessly evokes the texture and mood of Argentina.
My wife and I visited Argentina (and Chile, and Uruguay) in late 2007, and the movie brings it all back. "Tetro'' is far from a travelogue, yet feels so much like Argentina, I felt I could crawl inside the frame and be right there among the noctural city cafes and broken sidewalks, chilling out with the street characters and trolling the quasi-industrial cityscapes of La Boca, the gritty central-city district where the movie was filmed. Us, we stayed in Palermo, an up-and-coming neighborhood of restaurants, bars, shops and artisans, where Coppola maintained an office during the making of the movie. It was big local news in Buenos Aires when someone broke into the filmmaker's office and made off with the laptop that held the script for "Tetro.''
All's well that ends well, though. The film is exciting, emotionally affecting, lovely to behold, shot mostly in lustrous black and white, with dialogue in English and Spanish. It wanders a bit off course in the last half-hour with an operatic embrace of "family.'' The title character, Tetro - a blocked American writer, played by Vincent Gallo as Mr. Intensity, reinventes himself when he flees New York for Buenos Aires; he is a member of a very fractured family, indeed. "Tetro'' the movie has so many strengths, its weaknesses must be forgiven. Moreover, "Tetro'' boasts a confident performance by 20-year-old newcomer Alden Ehrenreich, who looks like a younger Leonardo DiCaprio and radiates ambition behind the baby fat. Maribel Verdu, as Tetro's wife and former therapist, turns in an assured, honed performance.
A bit of the film was shot in Patagonia, where, alas, I have yet to go. Seeing the sun glinting off the region's glaciers - massive, pearl-white, craggy - is enough to convince me to take a road trip there, as Coppola's characters do toward the end of the movie. Coppola, now 70, with the energy of a much younger man, directed and wrote the script. It is his first original screenplay since his brilliant "The Conversation'' during his golden age: the 1970s.
Most critics have applauded Coppola's artistic courage and return to form; the film makes few concessions to Hollywood or anyone's idea of easy commercialism. My old pal and former colleague Michael Sragow, the Baltimore Sun's lead movie critic, observed that Coppola made the film the way Elia Kazan would have done it: "This film's hypnotic, tremulous black and white makes you feel as if his camera lens refracts emotion and light simultaneously.'' Peter Howell, writing in the Toronto Sun, had a nice turn of phrase, too: "Cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. films in luscious widescreen monochrome that looks almost wet.''
This movie shares little of the well-made if conventional narrative arc of Coppola's classic "Godfather'' movies or "The Conversation,'' but "Tetro'' does something else they did: It makes you care about movies, makes you want to think and talk about what you see in them. And, for me, it makes me want to go back to Argentina, too, pronto.