In some ways, Abel Ferrara covers familiar ground with his latest release, Tommaso. The filmmaker explores substance abuse, but from a different angle when compared to his previous works. First and foremost, Tommaso is a stripped-down drama by a director who is no longer interested in high-octane narratives and exploitation films. This new version of Ferrara is more interested in depicting personal introspection, and he also wants viewers to know that Tommaso is explicitly biographical.
The director’s own wife and daughter — Cristina Chiriac and Anna Ferrara, respectively – play a wife and daughter in Tommaso. Willem Dafoe portrays the title character, an ageing party animal who attends a 12-step rehabilitation program and teaches an acting class in Rome, all the while trying to leave his past behind. Tommaso experiences infrequent and unpredictable bursts of anger, and confesses previous trauma which he shares at uncomfortable moments, most notably while speaking with his Italian teacher. Still, Tommaso tries to live a virtuous life, even if he is occasionally pulled back into the lifestyle he’s trying to forget.
Ferrara takes his time while revealing various facets of Tommaso’s personality through rehab meetings, visits to coffee shops, classes he’s teaching and familial interactions. Moments within such scenes often feel explicitly surreal, while others are hard to process, most notably when Dafoe’s character has a tryst with a nude woman, in a cafe, in broad daylight. There’s a disorientating effect which doesn’t do the film many favours.
However, the cafe sequence does somewhat underline Tommaso’s motivations. Throughout the film, he’s constantly on the verge of having a breakdown, which implies that many moments are figments of the character’s imagination. Around every corner, there seems to be something designed to draw Tommaso back into his life of debauchery, leaving the audience to wonder if he’ll fall into one of those traps.
All of this is only tangentially the point of Tommaso, though. It’s a film in which Ferrara creates a self-reflective autobiographical narrative of his later life, much of which is spent ruminating on the mistakes he’s made in the past and how those decisions affect the present. Dafoe provides a committed, authentic performance, and despite some meandering and unnecessary scenes, Tommaso has an air of authenticity due to the naturalistic dialogue; a slice-of-life feel.
The camerawork of cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger also reflects a sense of realism. Often, films which take place in large, world-famous cities, like Rome, are filmed like travelogues, with the focus being on famous landmarks and conveying the mood of the city. With Tommaso, Ferrara seems interested in depicting life as it truly is: full of small, seemingly inconsequential moments which, when combined, come together to form something meaningful. Ferrara’s biggest misstep is that Tommaso occasionally feels a little too artsy and surreal. There’s one scene in which Dafoe’s character passes his own heart to a group of people, like a macabre game of Pass the Parcel, sitting around a campfire. It feels out of place. Still, despite that, Dafoe infuses such moments with dramatic weight.
Tommaso shows Ferrara taking his career in a new direction, and it’s nice to see someone of his stature still making innovative, daring films. Tommaso may not be perfect, but it’s honest and authentic. Sometimes, that’s better than perfect.
Frazer MacDonald (@frazermac44) is a freelance film critic. He’s mostly interested in the horror genre, but also has a pretty keen interest in animated films, particularly the works of Studio Ghibli.