An artist’s time to reflect is as important as crafting their own work. Abel Ferrara’s Tommaso is the director’s semi-autobiographical attempt to reflect on his sober years of work. The director’s own wife and daughter star in the movie alongside Willem Dafoe, who portrays Ferrara’s stand-in. This meta-like approach allows Ferrara to loathe himself from a distance. If he goes all in and puts himself in the role, it could teeter into the realm of self-indulgence. At times, it does. Although these moments do exist, Tommaso is an effective film about a man trying to get through life.
Willem Dafoe’s performance is fantastic, as always. He portrays Ferrara with a non-judgmental approach. Rather, his long walks down Rome streets, battles with writer’s block at his desk, and AA meetings leave a very real person on screen. He moves through every scene with great presence and dramatic effect. The parts where he meditates and performs yoga are amazing to watch. The faces he pulls and the way he transforms his body are crazy. Ferrara’s own family do a great job. Knowing that they are related to the director the work is based on makes their scenes uncomfortable, warm, and emotional.
The film allows the director to think back on his past actions and emotions in a revealing light, but it’s also highly relatable. The pent-up frustration explodes at what feels like the right moments because we have all been where Dafoe’s character has been. It makes you believe that the artist isn’t any different from you or me. On the other hand, we have surreal moments of Tommaso falling into sexual fantasies with his students, or seeing reality as his mind wants to. These scenes come and go with little to no effect. They’re merely here to show what lurks in the back of his mind without looking at those dark secrets. The last moments don’t ruin the film, but what’s presented is a bit egotistical.
Plenty of other scenes make up for these criticisms. I love the way the AA meetings are framed. The dimly lit basement is hazy with conversations where you don’t know what parts are true, and what parts come from Dafoe’s frustration. A great conversation between Dafoe and his ride home offers up therapeutic advice for both the character and the audience. Another wonderful moment is when Dafoe begins an argument with a drunk homeless man, only to deescalate the situation when they realize they are both people stripped from their homes, though in very different ways. Joe Delia’s soothing, somewhat eerie music makes these scenes that much better, creating thoughtful moments.
The film offers ideas that are both thought-provoking (the place for an artist in the world, their relation to their family, past toxic habits blocking out ideas to progress), but there are also ideas that peek their head out only to hide again. With that in mind, I believe much of the film is good. I wish we could see Ferrara dig deeper, but what he keeps unearth here is plenty to see. I applaud him creating this self-reflective piece. This kind of work offers some interesting pieces. He doesn’t ask for anyone’s pity for what he did. He’s an old man lingering on what he’s done in the past.
dir. Abel Ferrara
Now available to rent via the Coolidge Corner Theatre’s Virtual Screening Room
Livestreamed Q&A with Willem Dafoe and Coolidge program director Mark Anastasio Sunday, 6/7, 2:00pm (see above link for details)
Streaming is no substitute for taking in a screening at a locally owned cinema, and right now Boston’s most beloved theaters need your help to survive. If you have the means, the Hassle strongly recommends making a donation, purchasing a gift card, or becoming a member at the Brattle Theatre, Coolidge Corner Theatre, and/or the Somerville Theatre. Keep film alive, y’all.