2020, NR, 117 min. Directed by Abel Ferrara. Starring Willem Dafoe, Cristina Chiriac, Anna Ferrara, Stella Mastrantonio, Lorenzo Piazzoni.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., June 5, 2020
When a director finds a muse or a constant collaborator, they often see something of themselves in their creative partner. In Tommaso, the heavily autobiographical, semi-improvised new self-portrait from Abel Ferrara, Willem Dafoe is the filmmaker, and the filmmaker is Dafoe.
It’s a deliberately blurred line: At one point, Tommaso, the American artist residing in Rome, scribbles down script notes for a character named Clint – far from coincidentally the name of Dafoe's character in Ferrara’s upcoming meditation on death and dreams, Siberia. The middle of a triptych that began with 2014's Pasolini, Tommaso is shot tight, handheld and intimate. It’s deliberately mundane in a way that’s not always expected from the storyteller that melded 42nd Street sleaze and arthouse sensibilities in King of New York and Bad Lieutenant.
Of course, it’s terrifically self-indulgent for a filmmaker to throw open their doors, ask a close friend – who happens to be one of the most respected actors working today – to play a proxy of himself and create a fictionalized version of his life and creative processes. But this is Ferrara, who has earned more latitude than most. It’s also that Dafoe’s Tommaso isn’t a lauded figure. He goes from home to the store to the park to the Italian classes he’s taking to the acting classes he delivers to the Narcotics Anonymous meetings he’s been attending for six years of sobriety. It’s all tiny beats, like the way Ferrara’s NA meetings are for a grab-bag of ex-pats from around the world, and the way his New York accent gets thicker when he thinks he’s about to head into a street fight; or how he uses his world-weary experience to become an instructor, interspersed with moments that reveal themselves to be fantasy. Those elements, mostly driven by the melding of his creative impasse, his fears surrounding fatherhood and marriage, and his libido, slide in without making a noise, revealing themselves gently as the one place he has a modicum of control. Everywhere else is a mess to some degree or other, and Ferrara/Dafoe/Tommaso lay all that out.
What's makes Tommaso stand out among thinly veiled autobiographical movies is that it’s not, like Tarkovsky’s Mirror, an attempt to reduce an entire life into two hours; nor, as in Fanny and Alexander or The 400 Blows, a portrait of the artist as a young man. This is Ferrara at this precise moment: It’s a life in everyday flux, trying to square all his circles, looking at the world as a filmmaker who is past many of his self-destructive youthful pursuits but is still prone to deep flaws. There’s less emotional self-indulgence than might be expected (having Ferrara’s real wife, Chiriac, play basically herself reduces those instincts), even if third-act nods to Malick and late-era Jodorowsky may be a little too far removed from Ferrara’s true strengths. Yet better a director like Ferrara strive for fascinating reinvention and self-reflection than rest on old laurels.
Tommaso is currently available as a virtual cinema release through local arthouse cinemas. Choose from:
• Violet Crown Cinema (Tickets here).