Willem Dafoe’s title character in Tommaso is conspicuously similar to the film’s writer-director Abel Ferrara. Tommaso is an American of around Ferrara’s age living in Rome with Nikki (Cristina Chiriac), a wife half his age, and their young daughter (played by Ferrara’s real-life wife and young daughter). He is a writer-director trying to crack the code of his next movie, which sounds like a heavily meditative, self-reflexive piece (not unlike Tommaso itself reads).
Dafoe, no stranger to Ferrara after multiple collaborations over the years, is primed to fill this role. In an early scene at an AA meeting, Dafoe monologues expertly about a bad act from his past. Tommaso is brutally honest with himself—seemingly a reflection of Ferrara being brutally honest with himself over transgressions in his past, although who can say for certain. He appears to be in a constant state of rehabilitation—of his character, of his body, of his psyche.
Dafoe is transfixing in this. He takes what was, reportedly, structured scenarios with minimal dialogue and breathes a natural air into the character. It appears effortless for Dafoe to enter this character and all of his emotional baggage. There is an alteration between zen-like poise and simmering anger, of present fighting past, that Dafoe transitions between with grace. Chiriac, similarly, delivers a wonderful performance. Her final two scenes, when her character succumbs to the stark rawness of her living situation, are flooring.
Occasionally, the film will pivot to dreamy representations of Tommaso’s pent-up sexual energy, in which he delicately engages with women in his life while they stand naked before him. While the intention behind these sequences add to the character of Tommaso, the imagery therein is somewhat overburdened (one sequence concludes with Tommaso prone in a Christ-like T-shape). These sequences are also a self-reflexive reminder of Ferrara’s exploitation film roots, with the camera lingering on the women’s naked bodies. Again, bold intentions are trumped by their visual execution.
This, in a nutshell, is the limiting factor in Tommaso. For all of its introspection and meandering realism (certain sequences of semi-improvised dialogue are reminiscent of Italian Neorealism), the film suffers, like its central figure, under the weight of its insulated dream states. Visions of fears and desires become redundant over time, repetitive in an oppressive manner that is realistic yet not cinematically intriguing.
As an autobiographical sketch, Tommaso reads honest, if not somewhat self-aggrandizing. For all of its depictions of conflicted hostility within its subject, it also wants to reassert his artistic power. Tommaso is a soft soul with a hardened exterior, and the net product of his internal struggle presents a character of nobility. Again, the overt Christ imagery throughout the film attests to this. There is a sense that, for all of the genuine reckoning with conscience that we witness in this character, Tommaso feels persecuted and misunderstood, that it is a given that his transgressions ought to be forgiven. Ferrara spends much of the film’s runtime deliberately and carefully presenting us with a character that may be hard to empathize with, only to telegraph, late in the film, how we are meant to feel about that character.
It is elegance painted with a thick brush, but that, still, is elegance.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)