by Rob DiCristino
The main thematic thrust of Abel Ferrara’s Tommaso recalls a famous lamentation from T.S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party: “I want to be cured of a craving for something I cannot find and the shame of never finding it.” The plot, more directly, recalls another: “Two people, who know they do not understand each other, breeding children whom they do not understand and who will never understand them.” As played by Willem Dafoe (and written as a semi-autobiographical Ferrara), the title character walks the streets of Rome fuming with this kind of suppressed rage and struggling with the weight of his own ineffectuality. He’s a director unable to get his new project off the ground. He’s a husband unable to reach his young wife (Ferrara’s real-life wife, Christina Chiriac) in a meaningful way. He’s a father (to Ferrara’s real-life daughter, Anna) haunted by the sins of a previous life. Most importantly, he’s an addict plagued by a chemical itch he cannot scratch.
Fans of Ferrara’s work will feel right at home in Tommaso, which is shot in a handheld guerilla style and cut together in a series of ellipses. Tommaso’s mind has a tendency to wander between reality and waking fantasies, and it’s never entirely clear which one we’re seeing at any given time. He has a lot going on. Things get cloudy. The line blurs. The most concrete details we get are gleaned through Alcoholics Anonymous meetings — Tommaso shares stories of his raucous Hollywood past, his previous unsuccessful attempts at family life, and his earnest hope that his new sobriety can help him make good. He’s also teaching classes, modeling breathing and movement exercises for young actors (with many of the women, of course, making bare-breasted appearances in his sexual daydreams) while he writes his next opus. Still, he’s no wandering lothario; Ferrara inverts the domestic struggles from their usual gender norms, presenting Tommaso as a doting husband and Nikki (Chiriac) as the cold and secretive wife.
Willem Dafoe is magnificent in the part, of course. I don’t have to tell you that. Roles like these (off the heels of The Florida Project and The Lighthouse) are proof that the veteran actor’s prestige has never gotten the better of him. He’s still hungry, and his oscillation between emotional states here feels as organic as ever. Ferrara builds the film around Dafoe’s rhythms, sometimes letting key scenes breathe for so long that it feels like he’s daring his lead actor not to drown in them. It all feels random, unpracticed. Natural. Like the classes he teaches and the meditation he practices, Tommaso’s life is about finding clarity in chaos. It’s full of contradiction and incongruity: He takes Italian language lessons to feel more comfortable in Rome, but he still can’t understand his wife’s native Moldovan. He shares his addiction stories to help others who are struggling, but he still can’t compensate for the paternal damage his wife suffered in her childhood. It just feels impossible to get it all right.