The only thing that saves Abel Ferrara’s autobiographical drama is a typically excellent performance by Willem Dafoe.
It’s not uncommon for an artist to become more self-reflective as they age. They create a piece of art that deals with their past, their work, and their relationships with other people. When done well, these pieces can be an in-depth exploration of the human condition and the power of art. When done poorly, these pieces are boring and self-important. Director/screenwriter Abel Ferrara’s latest film, Tommaso, is sometimes the former, but more often the latter.
Tommaso follows its namesake character (Willem Dafoe), an American ex-pat living in Rome and working on his latest directorial project, Siberia. In between scriptwriting, we see him teach acting classes, study the Italian language, argue with his much younger wife Nikki (Cristina Chiriac), care for their toddler DeeDee (Anna Ferrara), and attend AA meetings. While Tommaso is working hard to leave his troubled past behind, he;s beginning to bristle against his domestic life. As his relationship with Nikki becomes more strained, reality and his fantasies begin to become dangerously intertwined.
It’s light on plot, but as a character study, Tommaso mostly hinges on Dafoe’s acting. Fortunately, he gives a phenomenal performance. Dafoe expertly ramps up Tommaso’s frustration, letting his anger simmer until it boils over in his fights with Nikki. In between his bouts of rage, Dafoe adroitly portrays Tommaso’s vulnerable side: his insecurity over the age difference between him and Nikki, his worries over DeeDee’s safety, and most of all, his regret over his past life as an addict. In one particularly moving monologue, Tommaso discusses having to leave his adopted daughter when she was Nikki’s age due to his crack addiction, and his anguish and self-loathing over it is heartbreaking.
However, a great performance does not equate to a great movie. Tommaso is what casual moviegoers think non-Hollywood movies are: slow-moving, aimless, obtuse, and dull. The only thing that keeps it from winning “Indie Film Bingo” is the fact that it’s not shot in black and white. It’s a movie where not much happens and its characters lack motivation. Tommaso just jockeys himself from place to place with no overarching narrative, and it makes the film a slog that feels longer than it’s two hours.
Tommaso is what casual moviegoers think non-Hollywood movies are: slow-moving, aimless, obtuse, and dull.
Ironically, the elements that make Tommaso so boring are also, in some ways, commendable. Ferrara eschews the traditional recovering addict arc: there are no maudlin scenes of Tommaso looking wistfully at a bar, nor are there any melodramatic scenes of him returning to his junkie ways. In fact, drugs and booze have nothing to do with the breakdown of his marriage. Instead, it’s small misunderstandings and frustrations that snowball into resentment.
Even the fantasy sequences are (mostly) rooted in reality. Cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger utilizes handheld cameras and long-shots to create a realistic, fly-on-the-wall type of cinematography in both real life and Tommaso’s fantasies. As such, it’s difficult to figure out which events are real and which are fantasy. This blending of the two helps create an ambiguous and thought-provoking ending, which unsurprisingly, is the most interesting part of the film. Regardless, his fantasy scenes aren’t much more compelling than Tomasso’s real life. Most are scenes of nude women who want Tommaso sexually, or representations of his fears, such as a scene where he imagines DeeDee getting run over.
The more surreal fantasies are worse than boring: they’re pretentious. The first unambiguous dream sequence has Tommaso brought to a shadowy office for interrogation. What follows is a surreal conversation that has Tommaso telling his inquisitor that he can sense the man’s pain. The final dream sequence before the climax has Tommaso giving a group of men his heart. It’s an obvious and overused metaphor for how an artist keeps giving himself to his audience, and it feels self-aggrandizing and pompous.
Granted, it may not have seemed as self-important if Tommaso wasn’t so obviously a self-insert for Ferarra. Both are New Yorkers who moved to Rome, both are film directors, and both are converts to Buddhism. Nikki and DeeDee are played by Ferrara’s real-life wife and daughter, and Siberia is a Ferrara project that is set to be released later this year. While I doubt that Ferrara and Chiriac’s relationship is anywhere near as strained as Tommaso and Nikki’s, it’s not a stretch to believe that Ferrara put some of their real-life issues into the script.
Honestly, though, I hope Tomasso and Nikki’s relationship is more fiction than fact. Tommaso is controlling and paternalistic; the type of man who gets mad when Nikki eats without him or wants to take the metro instead of a taxi. Nikki laughs off his anger, never really taking it seriously, until the ending when their frustrations come to a head. It’s a chilling (although perhaps unintentional) portrayal of toxic masculinity that starts out as ostensibly caring but becomes more and more suffocating for both parties until they can’t stand each other.
Sadly, Ferrara often takes the focus away from the couple’s relationship, instead fixating on Tommaso’s day to day life. At first, this is an interesting glimpse into his life, watching him go to Italian classes, work on his screenplay, or teach acting classes. Eventually, the repetitiveness of these scenes start to feel extraneous and tired. They rarely have any bearing on the plot, nor are they particularly engaging. While showing the many aspects of Tommaso’s life does make the movie feel realistic, it is perhaps too realistic for its own good. Its disjointed plot makes the ending feel rushed and unsatisfying after a laboriously slow preceding hour and fifty minutes.
There’s a good movie hiding within Tommaso. If Ferrara had cut out the fluff and focused on Tommaso’s relationship with Nikki, it could have worked. Sadly, a meandering script keeps the film from connecting with the audience. This is made worse by his decision to effectively make a film about himself. I can handle it if you tell me a boring story, but telling me a boring story about yourself is unforgivable.
Tommaso is available on VOD starting June 5th.