Try Googling filmmaker Abel Ferrara, and you’ll get links to movies like Bad Lieutenant and King of New York (plus a lot about documentaries and shorts, too). He’s kind of known for a certain, shall we say, intense and gritty tone, which would make his newest, the mostly reflective Tommaso, what people call a departure.
The always spectacular Willem Dafoe (who was robbed by not getting that Oscar for The Lighthouse) stars as the titular Tommaso, an older American gent with a much younger wife and a toddler (played by Ferrara’s real life family Cristina Chiriac and Anna Ferrara), all of whom live in Rome. Its opening act feels like an Italian version of the movie love letter to New York, with Tommaso sipping coffee in laughter-filled shops, boning up on his Italian with a private tutor (Dafoe’s Italian is surprisingly great) and attending welcoming AA meetings with very interesting people who seem to hang on his every word. But hidden within that seeming domestic and geographic bliss are Tommaso’s fear of has-been-ness, impending age, a wife and daughter who barely seem to acknowledge his existence and any number of fantasy situations bubbling up in his subconscious as he works on his new screenplay for some kind of comeback.
Tommaso is, seemingly, a loosely-based bit of Ferrara’s actual fears coming to life onscreen, a vulnerable display that feels like a cinematic stroke of brilliance and openness until one realizes it’s rooted in a self-indulgent assumption that aging white men who feel things about movies are sooooo interesting (I am aware of the irony in writing that sentence in a film review).
Dafoe is natural as ever, and it’s hard not to feel for him when his AA buds make eye contact while his wife doesn’t. But whereas Almodóvar’s culling from his own life for broader themes based in experience often borders the sublimely relatable in films like Pain & Glory, Ferrara’s take feels like a midlife crisis in film form, only without any real learning. This deflates some of the suspense he builds otherwise, and it certainly doesn’t make us empathize with Tommaso. But then, maybe we’re not meant to. Maybe he’s actually supposed to be a sort of cautionary tale.
Either way, Ferrara shot the thing himself with almost no budget in and around his own Roman home, and guerrilla-style filmmaking and expert cinematography make Tommaso a mostly -worthy entry for his resume. Just ask yourself—do you like character studies?
+Dafoe; incredibly shot with tiny budget
-Self-indulgent; moves at a snail's pace
Directed by Ferrara
With Dafoe, Chiriac and Ferrara
violetcrown.com, NR, 115 min.