In 2007, noted moviemaking crazyperson Francis Ford Coppola ended a ten-year absence from cinema with Youth Without Youth, a self-indulgent, talky, artsy, pretentious mess of a motion picture. His follow-up, Tetro, is happily... well, I don't know if I should call it a return to form, because who the hell can say what "form" is for the director of Jack and Bram Stoker's Dracula? All I know is that Tetro is maddening and fascinating in a way that only a true artist could possibly manage, and piddling questions like whether or not the film "works" are completely beside the point. It's a challenging and brilliant and ludicrous movie, and that's what matters, much more than what numerical score it gets on a review aggregator. It's very living bit of film from a once-great man literally decades into his "moribund" phase, and for this reason if no other, it justifies itself.

From the most bare-bones summary of the plot, you'd never guess any of this: Benjamin (Alden Ehrenrich), a kid just a few days shy of his 18th birthday, arrives in La Boca, Argentina one night while the cruise ship where he works as waiter is held up for engine repairs, there to visit his long-lost brother Angie, now going under the name Tetro (Vincent Gallo), and Tetro's essentially-a-wife Miranda (Maribel Verdú). Sadly, Tetro has essentially no use for his kid brother at all, nor any member of his family; we learn before too long that this is because he essentially despises all memory of his tyrannic, dream-crushing father, the great conductor Carlo Tetrocini (Klaus Maria Brandauer, as good a choice as anyone to play an ethnic Italian born in Buenos Aires and raised in Berlin). Tetro left home to become a brilliant writer, but his dreams have stalled out and been replaced by something that neither Bennie nor the audience is ever quite able to puzzle out; let it rest at saying that the great opus he was working on before his burnout was a wholly undisguised recapitulation of the petty jealousies that plagued the Tetrocini family in all its branches for years upon years. What happens to this overwrought situation is best left undescribed, not only because it deprives the movie of some of its surprise to give it away, but because so much of the film's incident - from the drag version of Faust to the hot-tub orgy - would seem even sillier to write down than it was to watch it.

First things first: this is plainly a deeply-felt movie for the writer-director (working with his first self-penned original screenplay since The Conversation, 35 years ago). In a very real sense, the film's forthright explosion of familial rivalry and jealousy suggests in no uncertain terms that Coppola feels tremendous guilt over being the most successful and famous member of a large family that includes numerous other well-known film professionals: his children Sofia and Roman have both directed movies, Nicolas Cage and Jason Schwartzman are his nephews, Talia Shire is his sister, and his father Carmine wrote film scores, and this is all without even looking it up. But only Francis will ever bear the distinction of making The Godfather, possibly the most well-regarded American film of the last 50 years, which means that like Carlo Tetrocini, his many artistic relatives are forever doomed to exist primarily in relationship to him. Be honest: no matter how much you liked or hated Lost in Translation, wasn't your first reaction to it, "Huh, Francis Coppola's daughter made a picture that everybody seems to love"?

But not for Coppola père to simply make a melodrama that airs out all the baggage he feels about being more beloved than Sofia would be if she made a hundred Lost in Translations. Tetro is a mad explosion of ideas and conceits and references to other movies, the most obvious being Powell & Pressburger's The Tales of Hoffmann, a semi-surrealist opera adaptation whose most famously effed-up sequence is both shown in Tetro and later recreated, sort of. But there are also overtones of numerous other filmmakers and films, including Almodóvar, 1950s film noir, and according to Coppola himself, the widescreen films of Kurosawa. It is the kind of grab bag of influences that only a true worshipper of the cinema could ever begin to put together, and there's so much reference to so many movies that have no business being combined in any way that the whole thing takes on the feeling of something completely original. At any rate, if you've ever seen a movie like it, tell me its name, because I'm super-interested.

Besides how steeped he is in film history, Coppola also throws in plenty of invention all his own: the way that the many flashbacks in the film are all shown in desaturated color, windowboxed to a 1.66: aspect ratio (or maybe it's 1.85, I was trying to eyeball it), while the main action is in anamorphic widescreen, black and white, sharp and lit with harsher light than decades of convention have left us thinking plausible. The truly bizarre thing is that the deeply stylised monochrome visuals (I haven't even mentioned the loony camera angles Coppola comes up with) becomes so familiar over the two hours and change that the movie runs that those pedestrian color scenes, shot with what must be a deliberately conservative Hollywood-style cutting pattern, become exotic and weird and inexplicable; one of the first times in my experience that "realistic" footage looks particularly fake and absurd.

Everything is so absolutely heightened and artificial here - let us not forget that "Tetro" is one vowel removed from the Spanish word for "theater", and the film's copious references to opera, stagecraft, and symphonic music leave no doubt for the level of hyperdrama that we should expect from it - that you'd almost expect it to offer no kind of human-scaled story, but the characters in Tetro are all pretty fine, and the three lead actors are especially great; Gallo, for one, is suddenly revealed as a master actor, after presenting himself to the world for years now as a self-serving raconteur and dipshit. And just because Tero is higly melodramatic doesn't mean it can't be moving; it is both, and this is what makes it such a pleasure, in some ways.

Oh, yes, there are some flaws: it's a lot too long, the ending is far too pat, the drama frequently makes no damn sense, and the digital photography makes no attempt to hide its glossy video origins, in a scenario begging for real-live film to be used. But somehow, I prefer a Tetro that spins on for a half-hour more than it earns to Tetro that's tight and perfect; because the Tetro we got proves that Coppola still has more ambition than he knows what to do with, and that's not a thought anybody should have had for many years now. The new film isn't by the most enthusiastic, generous terms a masterpiece, but it's so completely interesting and vital that it couldn't possibly be improved, just by being better. Coppola is in magnificently interesting form here, and I would never dare to ask a 70-year-old who has just found the footing of a curious twentysomething art student to change that for anything.