THE STORY – A broken man searching for stability finds a new life in Italy with a much younger wife. He struggles to reconcile this new beginning with the stumbles of the past.
THE CAST – Willem Dafoe
THE TEAM – Abel Ferrara (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 115 Minutes
By Nicole Ackman
Abel Ferrara’s “Tommaso,” which premiered at the Cannes Special Screenings in 2019, is an intimate portrait of an American artist in Rome trying to reconcile being an artist, a recovering addict, and a husband and father. The film, both written and directed by Ferrara, is clearly at least somewhat based on his own life, personality, and struggles. It’s a very melancholy film that’s part English and part Italian.
Ferrara is known for his provocative films and gritty urban settings. While he’s a prolific filmmaker, this might be his most autobiographical work. It’s more a character study through vignettes than a narrative, centered on a film director named Tommaso who’s similarly an American living in Europe dealing with trying to move on from his former bad ways. To make it even more clear, Tommaso’s wife and daughter are played by Ferrara’s wife and daughter, Cristina Chiriac and Anna Ferrara. This enhances the idea that Tommaso is at least partially a stand-in for Ferrara himself and also results in an authentic easiness between mother and child.
Willem Dafoe stars as Tommaso, marking his fifth collaboration with Ferrara. He’s as good as you would expect from Dafoe who seems to be able to elevate every piece that he’s in. Tommaso is a complicated character. He’s a man who takes Italian lessons, goes to an addiction recovery group, does yoga, and teaches movement classes. But for a man who’s often surrounded by others, he’s isolated within his own mind, distrustful of his wife and jealous of the attention she shows their child. The film fails to make his wife, named Nikki in the film, her own character, but rather just a reflection of Tommaso’s thoughts about her.
The film is largely about the contradictions and challenges between addiction, art, and family. There are moments in which we see the family cooking and dancing together, and yet Tommaso seems detached from his wife and daughter and she feels neglected by him. Tommaso also worries about his past of addiction and the effects it will have on his family, particularly as he describes his wife’s struggles with her alcoholic father. (This is a great example of how we get Tommaso’s perception of his wife, but little from her own voice.) We occasionally see the storyboards he’s working on, though the fact that we see so little of him working, and thus don’t feel his identity as an artist more strongly, is one of the weak points of the film.
“Tommaso” is a somewhat confusing viewing experience as the audience must attempt to figure out what’s imaginary and what’s actually happening. The unsteady camera work and dark lighting in some scenes certainly add to this. There are several scenes in which Tommaso has relations with fully naked women, and while it seems that these might be all in his imagination, it’s also not explicitly clear. For how mundane much of the film is, the more extreme scenes feel too jarring and unbalanced.
If “Tommaso” was 20 to 30 minutes shorter, perhaps it would be a more palatable viewing experience and would feel less meandering. It has much that it wants to say about addiction and parenthood and the life of an artist but is somewhat of a bore. How autobiographical it feels can also make it seem a bit self-indulgent on Ferrara’s part. If you’re a fan of Ferrara’s work or Willem Dafoe’s acting, then you may appreciate “Tomasso”. If not, it’s one to skip.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Willem Dafoe is as good as ever in this somewhat autobiographical movie by Abel Ferrara. Fans of his work will enjoy it.