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Francis Ford Coppola: His Own Life Story in New Film Tetro

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Francis Ford Coppola teared up twice during our interview at Cannes, when discussing his new film Tetro, the story of a young man who adores his fascinating older brother, emigre writer to Argentina, who abandoned him when he was a kid. It turns out that this story is personal to Coppola, who discovered his own childhood feelings while writing the script. "I never knew that my brother had abandoned me. I went to six different high schools while my older brother went to live with my grandmother.... "

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While the film Tetro is certainly about the naive worship a young boy can have for an older far-away sibling, its greater subject is patriarchy: men who domineer, impress and rule the family, whether by violence or prowess. One is also struck by the hurt and anger that can break up a family. Indeed, this personal tale is Coppola's Godfather, while The Godfather, Coppola admits, was his own Italo-American family, replete with powerful male figures (in his case, musicians). "I never met a gangster," he explained. "So I made the Corleane family like my own family in New York."

In this new film, the family is transplanted to Argentina, but we have the same kinds of male-male relationships (one-up-manship, rivalry, revenge) and male-female relationships (pretty docile sentiment-prone girls versus secretive brooding ambitious roosters), and the same obsession with fame, success, family insertion.

"But this one I get to sign with my own name," Coppola said. "Before I wrote 'Mario Puzzo.'

In talking to Coppola, one has the impression one is talking to a maverick godfather himself, who is creatively pulling his own strings towards power: whether the power of "art" or that of being a restauranteer (Coppola has a chic bistro in San Francisco) or wine producer (the most important in the US).

The emphasis is on his own entrepreneurial integrity.

"You ask why my film is in black and white? It scares me that we live in a world that everything has to be in color. It feels like a gulag. When I did Apocalypse Now, I was 32 and had put up my house to finance it. When I do a personal movie, I never do what the machine is supposed to do. I am distributing this film myself, so I can get this out in November."

Coppola is also quick to point out his own personal touches on the set. "You know that cat that Marlon Brando plays with in the beginning of the Godfather? I just put it in his lap..."

The man who does everything himself--his own way--naturally had some gripes about "the Industry": "It's a crazy contradiction: that the guy who had success doing the Godfather and Apocalypse Now could still be damned by Variety. This is the contradiction at the heart of Apocalypse Now: we live in a world of entire contradictions, that everyone accepts. What is allowed to be made as a movie is only a certain kind of thing. Someone tries to make a personal movie and he is considered a pretentious person."

Coppola's personal movie, Tetro, is not at all pretentious and fans will be impressed with the originality of the telling. The sets--from the streets of Buenas Aires to the apartment interiors--are stunningly theatrical, the drama peaked with surprises.

Nevertheless, despite Coppola's intent, the film does not make us tear up along with the director. The characters are drawn a bit too obviously--in big masculine strokes--so we don't particularly care about them. The provocative experimental "theater within a film" scenes (clips of Hoffman's tales, a memory from Coppola's childhood, we learn) are promising but inchoate. And the film's subplot of the American Dream story (i.e. the brother is a potentially prize-winning screenwriter) clunks heavily. The Americana myths of success and fame--so fresh in Coppola's early films---seem flat.

Still it is a curious experience to see the Godfather brought back to life in Argentina, in black and white, with a new angle on pathos, and a stand-in younger brother for the director himself. Most memorable are the bitter lines: "I divorced myself from my family", "famous people don't help each other" and "love is only a stab in the heart".