Jul 8, 2009 at 12:00 am

Francis Ford Coppola is well past giving a toss about expectations. At this point in his illustrious career, he finally has the resources to do whatever he wants with a camera. He always had the talent; a vivid filmmaker with a promethean gift for imagery, Coppola has often been caught in the tangle of his reputation as a director of sprawling epics. To paraphrase Dylan, he's younger than that now, and with enough stature and cash to make the sort of quirky, experimental, personal films he set out to make when he founded American Zoetrope nearly four decades ago.

The result here is an exquisite daydream; a beautifully rendered, florid melodrama filled with smoldering passions and deeply buried family secrets. Vincent Gallo is perfectly cast as the title's seething, bitterly stifled artist, haunted by his shadowy past and the notion that he's never quite lived up to his potential. He's been in semi-exile for a decade, hiding away in a funky Buenos Aires neighborhood far away from his posh New York family, until his much younger kid brother (exceptional newcomer Alden Ehrenreich) comes calling unannounced. Together these two begin to explore their dark, fractured history and the world of eccentric artists around them, including a Pauline Kael-like literary critic who holds the key to Tetro's creative revival.

The film is flat-out gorgeous: Coppola is in full command of his craft; his lush black-and-white compositions recall Antonioni, Fellini and even Bergman and Kazan, every setup an opportunity for surprise. Flashbacks and dream sequences invoke Michael Powell's immortal Red Shoes, and other expressionistic musicals, with Coppola shooting them in color and in the boxy, 1940s aspect ratio. The storyline is more soap than opera, and not quite up to the labored technique, especially in the meandering third act — but it's a thrill to watch a master risk it all for art.

Opens Friday, July 10, at the Landmark Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.

Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].