In his first feature since 2014’s controversial Pasolini, writer/director Abel Ferrara (Ms .45, King of New York, Bad Lieutenant) re-emerges with Tommaso, a work that is part biography, part fantasy, and part emotionally kinetic exercise in exorcising one’s demons. Set in the same part of Rome where the filmmaker actually lives (for all I know, they shot in his actual apartment as well), the film stars long-time collaborator Willem Dafoe as the title character, who just happens to be an older filmmaker, attempting get some writing done on his next movie while also balancing a newly formed family life with his much younger wife Nikki (played by Ferrara’s real-life wife, Cristina Chiriac) and their three-year-old daughter Deedee (the director’s actual daughter Anna Ferrara).
To keep money coming in and his sanity in check, he fills his days with such activities as teaching an acting class, doing intense yoga, fine-tuning his already excellent grasp on the Italian language, and attending group meetings for those with substance abuse problems. But despite all of these self-help methods, Tommaso still has guilt about his past deeds, his impure thoughts about other women, and the occasional desire to see people in his life dead, all of which manifest themselves in fairly elaborate, sometimes graphic fantasy sequences. This instability causes an emotional and physical rift between him and Nikki. His sexual frustration compounds his other issues, resulting in a vicious circle of suffering for him and those around him—although most of the time, he’s a fully functioning, very friendly person on the outside.
There are extended sequences of Dafoe talking to his support group, spinning stories of life on drugs or alcohol that are so detailed and believable that the lines blur even further between fiction, Ferrara’s story and even Dafoe’s own life (which has also been hard lived at times). Dafoe seems capable of not only working with just about every director rumored (or actually) to be difficult to work with (Oliver Stone, Lars Von Trier, Werner Herzog, and even Ferrara, among others), but also becoming an actor that those filmmakers return to (Ferrara and Dafoe have already made another film together since this one, called Siberia), so it’s no surprise that over many decades, he and Ferrara are not only great collaborators but are willing to dive into their personal experiences to make better art. (The two are also apparently neighbors in Rome.)
Although Tommaso is rough around the edges and sometimes difficult to endure because of its brutal honesty, it’s also remarkably delicate and revealing in ways that draw you in and make you curious whether the character can pull his emotions together enough to save his marriage, be a good father, and create work that means something to him. This is not just a portrait of a person in crisis; it’s an honest look at someone struggling hard to right themselves because it would notably improve their lives to do so. The raw honesty is what I’ve come to expect from Ferrara, but I don’t believe I’ve ever seen him apply his talents to a story so autobiographical, and the result is something genuinely and surprisingly beautiful and true.
The film is available through the Gene Siskel Film Center’s “Film Center from Your Sofa” program.
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