Willem Dafoe juggles the responsibilities of family, recovery and the art life in Abel Ferrara’s latest work of autofiction.

Ruairí McCann on Abel Ferrara’s ‘Tommaso’ (2020)

Writer-director Abel Ferrara, one of the most committed memoirists in cinema, has made films about filmmakers before. Tommaso, however, feels more personal and concerted in its focus on the quotidian existence of an artist-filmmaker. It stars Willem Dafoe, giving an excellent performance that flits between ease and restlessness. He plays Tommaso, an American actor-filmmaker living in Rome who spends his days taking Italian lessons, teaching an acting class, attending AA meetings, or otherwise running errands around the city. The rest of his time is spent back in his apartment in the Piazza Vittorio district. There he finds the space to work through the pre-production of his next film — which we periodically see and hear through voiceover and a collage of storyboards and clips — or just to meditate. In and around his family life is his partner Nikki (Cristina Chiriac) and their toddler daughter, Deedee (Anna Ferrara). There’s a surfacing tension between Tommaso and Nikki, seemingly inevitable when the gulf of opinion and experience that can exist in any relationship is widened further by age difference — she’s pushing 30 while he’s in his 60s — and then compounded by the stresses of child-rearing. In one scene where they start to fuck, in a much-needed moment of intimacy, they are interrupted by Deedee’s cries.

As their disagreements mount, from petty passive aggression to flare-ups, it seems like they have gone past a healthy or expected level of discord. This provokes — along with the memories of his past as an addict, unfaithful husband, and absentee parent — insecurities and sexual frustration that are sifted through Tommaso’s imagination into the mould of fantasy sequences that interrupt the nearly plotless and detail panning flow of the film. The most intrusive strand, staged with a predatory efficiency and lit to an expressionist shadowiness, casts Tommaso as a Messianic-Mephistophelian figure, cribbed semi-explicitly from Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita (1966) and Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation Of Christ (1988).

Outside of these sequences, the film is shot with unvarnished natural lighting and handheld camera, with relatively unadorned tracking shots and pans revolving around the motif of Dafoe manoeuvring his way through the city. His pace is tuned to the speed of his racing thoughts, with Fabio Nunziata’s cutting and Peter Zeitlinger‘s cinematography remarkably mimetic of a busy consciousness, like when an intimate rapport with one of his students is taken a step too far. We watch him tearing through the metro with Ferrara conveying his mood not in a single take but through little elliptical cuts and rhythm jilting changes in angle. It exerts the feeling of propulsion and disorientation which matches the unsteady mental shift, from conflict to distraction, that he undergoes between disappearing below one street and emerging onto another. Or in a scene early on when we are introduced to his home life: as Nikki and Deedee play in one room and Tommaso cooks in the other, the camera dollies between the two spaces, expressing the divide between Tommaso and his family that he fears will go from spectre to something solid and immovable.

It’s the exploration of this fear, combined with the film’s autobiographical status — Nikki and Deedee are played by Ferrara’s real partner and child, many of the anecdotes recounted are his, and the film being worked on bears a striking resemblance to his next, Siberia (2020) — that sets Ferrara apart from much of the current crop of both American and European filmmakers, many of whom have swallowed the shallow Ebertism that good cinema can be exclusively defined as a tool for improving one’s morals. It’s a view of art that can be found in both high-priced awards fodder and issues-driven, realist-adjacent independents dominant within the festival circuit on both sides of the Atlantic. In this climate, movies are seen less as a canvas for bodies, spaces, and complex ways of being worth exploring, then as single-minded vehicles for establishing broad — to the point of vacuity— political stances; the sort that is common among a liberal to left-leaning middle-class and up-crowd, so unlikely to dent, never mind shatter, anyone’s complacency.

Ferrara, on the other hand, has long been committed to the more difficult artistic pursuit of self-examination. It’s an approach alien to filmmakers who ignore, or lack the means, to express the contradictory human condition. Ferrara is aware that there can be a dissonance between a person’s conception of themselves — what they believe is right and wrong — and how they actually treat other people. Guilt and self-loathing, as much as they are abject states, also have a masochistic pull.

Ferrara highlights these contradictions and flaws within a masculine psyche by placing Tommaso’s relationship with the women in his life, and his sexualization of them, within the context of dialogue scenes where they expound on their past and present catastrophic experiences with men, and make Tommaso both an implicit and explicit and often critical point of comparison. While the said AA meetings, which recur throughout the film and feature Tommaso wrestling with his psychology, expound on the mistakes he’s made and the urge to make them again. These scenes, thanks to Dafoe’s performance, are deeply moving on their own terms. But they become even more so in the knowledge of Ferrara’s own hard-won sobriety and how Tommaso eventually recedes to the sidelines so that the other people in the room can tell of their experiences and recovery. Ferrara is not only an astute observer of his own travails and neuroses; in the same pains and unstable course he shows that redemption is an experience that belongs to many.

“Tommaso” screened as part of the Silk Road International Film Festival 2020 at the Irish Film Institute, Dublin.


Director Abel Ferrara

Writer Abel Ferrara

Cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger

Editor Fabio Nunziata

Cast Willem Dafoe, Cristina Chiriac, Anna Ferrara

Duration 115 minutes

Ruairí McCann

By Ruairí McCann

Ruairí McCann is a critic based in Belfast. He runs a monthly film column for Film Hub NI and has appeared in Photogénie, Ultra Dogme, Little White Lies, and The Thin Air.