As a work of semi-improvised metafiction set in Rome, Abel Ferrara’s Tommaso (now playing in Virtual Cinemas) is a fragrant cipollini onion inviting us to peel away its layers. Is Willem Dafoe’s titular protagonist, a volatile expat filmmaker with a marriage on the rocks, wrestled from Ferrara’s own troubled biography? Is Dafoe playing a raw version of himself?
When he tells a group of students at his acting class that a great performance is always “a balance between control and abandon,” it sounds like a critic’s comment on Dafoe’s own combustible style. At one point, he steels a glance, and holds a beat, directly at the camera in a surprising aside, and we’re not sure if we’re looking at Tommaso or Dafoe — an accidental puncture in the fourth wall, or a deliberate wink.
As Ferrara continues in his prolific twilight — Tommaso is one of two features scheduled for a 2020 release, both set in Italy and starring Dafoe — he’s become a more abstruse and radical filmmaker, a figure more inclined toward spontaneity and exploration than fealty to his own scripts, which Dafoe described in a recent interview as often containing “fragments of scenes.”
In one of the best moments in Tommaso, the wailing voice of a homeless man on the streets of Rome kept wafting into the upper-floor apartment set, disrupting a tense scene. So Dafoe/Tommaso stormed downstairs, confronted him and engaged him in a dialogue with surprising empathy, Ferrera’s camera capturing it all. It was a dexterous balance between control and abandon, and I can’t imagine the movie without it.
Whether scripted or not, Tommaso is essentially an accretion of such gradually revealing scenes, a character study of wounded masculinity and generational drift. As Dafoe and the movie itself amble toward their uncertain futures, situational details and plot points pop as leisurely as courses in a sprawling Roman dinner.
While working on a screenplay about love and the end of the world (a reference to Ferrara and Dafoe’s own 4:44 Last Day on Earth?), Tommaso lives, and fights, with his 29-year-old wife Nikki (Cristina Chiriac). They have a 3-year-old child together, Deedee (Anna Ferrara), whose presence has caused a strain on the marriage. Adding to the movie’s hall of meta mirrors, Chiriac is Ferrara’s wife, and Anna is their daughter.
Tommaso spends his days attending Italian-language classes, practicing meditation and breathing, attending Al-Anon meetings — he’s been sober for six years, a reference to Ferrara’s own battles with addiction — and teaching his unorthodox acting courses. One day, while in the park with his daughter, he eavesdrops on Nikki making out with a younger man.
As the days drag on, Nikki grows ever more distant, finding excuses to be out of the apartment for extended periods of time, conveniently forgetting her phone charger so she can avoid his calls. Spousal communication withers, resentments curdle on both sides, and Tommaso asserts old-fashioned patriarchal demands that make him sound increasingly like a fossil from the 1950s.
All the while, he escapes into illusions of intellectual cunning and erotic conquest, filmed by Ferrara in ways that blur the distinction between fantasy and reality, until we can hardly discern his thoughts, a toxic stew of guilt and libido, from his everyday life.
Ferrara’s movies have long courted controversy. But compared to his formative work, with its dark depictions of sexual violence, Tommaso is a tamer character study, one that suggests an honest autocritique of his aggressive earlier posture. While the film is intellectually daring, don’t be too surprised if it ultimately leaves you cold, its collective heft not quite as stirring as its individual parts. This is Ferrara working stuff out, and therapy isn’t supposed to fun.
TOMMASO. Director: Abel Ferrara; Cast: Willem Dafoe, Cristina Chiriac, Anna Ferrara, Stella Mastrantonio; in Italian and English; Distributor: Kino Lorber; Rated R; Now available in Virtual Cinemas including Savor Cinema in Fort Lauderdale (fliff.com) and O Cinema in Miami (o-cinema.org)