The patriarch is Papa Carlo (Klaus Maria Brandauer), a larger-than-life conductor who casts a giant shadow on his younger brother, Alfie (Brandauer again), and his sons, Tetro and Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich). Carlo is a figure familiar to anyone who has been either smothered or nurtured by relatives. That is to say, everyone.
"Only room for one genius in this family!" Carlo crows. Unlike another Coppola tragic figure, this patriarch very much believes in taking sides against the family. Carlo is like Saturn devouring his children, a divo whose talent is not visibly proportional to his outsized ego and appetites.
To escape this monster, Tetro has bolted to Buenos Aires, where he has a fragile hold on sanity and health. The film opens as Tetro's younger brother, Bennie, visits his long-lost sibling, who has no interest in reconciliation.
When Tetro's girlfriend (Maribel Verdú) gives Bennie some motherly attention, it triggers something dark and deep and dangerous in the elder brother.
Tetro has bad luck with parent figures: He is estranged from Dad, Mom is dead, and Argentina's premier critic (a weirdly campy Carmen Maura) had championed his plays but is now critical of them. Rooting through Tetro's old notebooks and unproduced plays, Bennie gets a whiff of the curdling family secrets. In a faintly vampiric way, Bennie feeds off Tetro's writing to create a play and establish himself artistically.
Coppola tells his story both conventionally (with flashbacks to family history) and unconventionally (using old movie clips and new dance sequences to advance the story). The result is visually inventive, narratively edgy, and unlike anything else. While Gallo's melodramatics do not seem to match Ehrenreich's low-key work, the clash in acting styles nicely suggests the clash of personalities.
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl/