Director: Abel Ferrara
Screenplay: Abel Ferrara
Stars: Willem Dafoe (Tommaso), Cristina Chiriac (Nikki), Anna Ferrara (Deedee)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 2020
Country: Italy / U.K. / U.S. / Greece

I have a general aversion to films centered around privileged male narcissists, so it was with some surprise that I found Abel Ferrara’s Tommaso as emotionally engaging as I did. A character study of the titular Tomasso (Willem Dafoe ), a recently sober American director living and working in Rome with his wife and young daughter, it is without doubt one of Ferrara’s most personal works. Just in case you didn’t know, Ferrara himself is an expat American director living and working in Rome who finally got sober after battling drug addiction for years, and he cast his wife, Cristina Chiriac, as Tomasso’s wife, and their three-year-old daughter, Anna Ferrara, as their daughter. Oh, and the film Tomasso is currently working on is Siberia, Ferrara’s most recent film (which also stars Dafoe).

So, to see Tomasso as Ferrara and Ferrara as Tomasso doesn’t require much analytical stretching, and it is clear that Ferrara, a filmmaker who has courted controversy his whole career, has some demons to work out. Much of the film simply follows Tomasso’s daily existence, which consists of a relatively mundane set of activities: taking private Italian language lessons, shopping at the local market, getting coffee from the corner café, working on the script and storyboards for his upcoming film, practicing yoga, and attending narcotics anonymous meetings. Ferrara establishes a realistic and engaging sense of lived existence as his constantly moving camera follows Tomasso around the city and in the large apartment he shares with his much younger wife, Nikki (Cristina Chiriac), and young daughter Deedee (Anna Ferrara).

Dafoe, who starred in Ferrara’s last feature film Pasolini (2014) about the controversial Italian director, cannot be anything other than an interesting screen presence, and his performance here is fascinating and multi-layered, as he conveys a character whose largely calm and controlled exterior is clearly masking a great deal of inner turmoil and pain and regret and insecurity, which erupt in ways both small and large. At one point he loses his temper when Nikki makes lunch for her and Deedee but doesn’t think to ask if he wants to join them because he was asleep. It is a relatively small moment of marital conflict, but one that is fraught with all kinds of emotional pitfalls involving jealousy, insecurity, and frustration; Nikki’s less-than-sympathetic response doesn’t help matters, and while we can identify with Tomasso’s hurt feelings, we also realize that he has created the situation himself with his self-imposed emotional isolation and lack of communication (something that Nikki tells him explicitly right before they have a moment of coitus interruptus, another obvious source of frustration for Tomasso).

Early in the film Ferrara suggests that not everything we see should be taken literally, and the film continually slips in and out of Tomasso’s internal world. This is a technique that Ferrara has used numerous times throughout his career, as he is often drawn to characters who are losing their minds—from the painter-turned-serial killer he played in the notorious video nasty The Driller Killer (1979), to Harvey Keitel’s tormented protagonist in Bad Lieutenant (1992), who at the film’s most powerful moment believes he is confronting Christ Himself. Early in the film Tomasso is accosted by a group of men who take him to a room where he is interrogated about activities we never see. Ferrara gives us no indication that we have entered Tomasso’s subjectivity, which throws us off as we are suddenly faced with uncertainty about what we’re seeing.

These off-ramps from reality are often sexual in nature, and they constitute some of the film’s most obvious and banal nods to Tomasso’s patriarchal need for dominance, as he imagines the local barista serving him while completely naked, and later he engages in a one-on-one lesson with one of his acting students while she is—you guessed it—completely naked. Tomasso remains fully clothed, thus indicating his sense of control within his own fantasy while women serve as projections of objectified feminine subservience—exactly what he does not get from Nikki, who is strong-willed and independent. A later scene in which he engages in some sexual foreplay with another one of his female students in a car might or might not be fantasy—at that point, who knows?

These sexual interludes constitute the film’s weakest links as they are so obvious as absurd male fantasies about power and dominance. Much better are the scenes at Tomasso’s narcotics anonymous meetings, in which various former addicts tell their stories in ways that feel painfully real. Tomasso relates part of his own story in one scene, and it is one of the few moments when he feels acutely real. When he is with Nikki, he often feels like he is dutifully playing a role, and it is only when he loses his temper that we sense the real Tommaso—the one who is concerned only about himself and his own experience—emerge. Some of his anger is fueled by jealousy, particularly when he sees (maybe) Nikki canoodling with a younger man in the park (the blatant nature of his transgression out in the open makes it feel like a nightmare-fantasy). That male fragility that largely defines Tomasso’s existence—made all the weaker by his sobriety, which forces him to continue confronting the world rather than escaping it—eventually leads to a violent climax that is most likely a mix of reality and fantasy. It is the moment when Dafoe is allowed to become completely unhinged, which makes it feel more obvious than cathartic, even as Ferrara invests it with a great deal of brute emotional power. But, that is very much the kind of film that Tomasso is—a portrait told in broad strokes that are sometimes too broad, but more often than not find some real power and insight in the details in-between.

Copyright © 2020 James Kendrick

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Overall Rating: (3)

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