Friday, August 11, 2023

Notes on Film: Tommaso the Addict

 by Anthony King

And the fickleness of the artist.

As a fan of filmmaker Abel Ferrara, I have been most familiar with his earlier works. Recently, though, I sat down to watch one of his many collaborations with Willem Dafoe, and possibly his most autobiographical picture, Tommaso (2019). Many genre fans are familiar with Ferrara's work on films like the psycho-punk slasher Driller Killer (1979), the ultimate revenge tale Ms .45 (1981), the modern gangster thriller King of New York (1990), the ultra-sleazy cop movie Bad Lieutenant, or his vampire film, The Addiction (1995). Shunning Hollywood, Ferrara retreated to the promise of artistic freedom of Europe, and has lived and worked in Italy for the past couple decades. Some have said Ferrara has gone through a third artistic transition since living overseas, and starting with 4:44 Last Day on Earth (2011), many say he has come into his most personal period of filmmaking.
In that third rebirth lies Tommaso, a story about an American filmmaker living in Rome (like Ferrara) with his much younger wife and toddler daughter (like Ferrara) learning how to survive as a sober human being (like Ferrara). Dafoe is the titular character and Ferrara stand-in. Ferrara's real-life wife (Cristina Chiriac) and daughter (Anna) play Tommaso's spouse and child, Nikki and Dee Dee, respectively. The film follows Tommaso as he's in the process of storyboarding his next film (the fictional film in development is actually the following, real-life Ferrara-Dafoe collaboration, Siberia). Like many artists, Tommaso's creativity tends to take precedence in his life, leaving his family to take second place. At the same time Tommaso realizes this is happening, he doesn't understand why his young wife keeps him at arm's length. Their love life is nearly non-existent, leaving Tommaso to have affairs. While struggling artistically and romantically, Tommaso has also been sober for several years. He attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings every Friday where he is shown to be at his most vulnerable (at ease). This all compounds to create an undercurrent of excruciating tensity throughout the entire movie.
Because Dafoe and Ferrara have worked together numerous times, live in the same neighborhood in Rome, and are essentially family at this point, both men become one in the same in Tommaso. The character of Tommaso is a decent person (philandering aside). He's a good father. But he's old. His age shows as he tries to keep up with his three-year-old daughter. He's awkward, many times resorting to just making faces and silly sounds. He can't relate to the other parents at the park because he's old enough to be their father. The communication breakdown between Tommaso and Nikki is at times unbearable to watch. The way Tommaso interacts with his Italian language tutor is cringey most of the time. Yet when he's in his Friday night meeting, he's an open book – completely transparent about his past and his present. He speaks of his fears and inadequacies as a husband, father, and artist. As an addict who attends AA meetings, and how that affects my life as a creative person, I can tell you Tommaso is the most brutally honest and accurate depiction of that type of human being.

Without spoiling specific moments in the film, there are two very jarring things that happen that may seem out of place to a person who doesn't have an addict's brain. But, after picking my jaw off the floor, these two moments had me nodding my head in agreement while in my head I was saying, “Oh, yeah. Of course. I totally understand that.” Tommaso is erratic. He's volatile. At times he seems like the most dangerous man in the world. Other times he seems like a giant teddy bear. The combination of artist and addict creates sort of the perfect storm. Tommaso is frightening because of that turbulence. In the eye of that storm it's calm, and these are the moments of creative tranquility, tenderness with his wife, walking hand-in-hand with his daughter. He can't stand being around people for very long, no matter who these people are. Yet he can't stand being alone with himself for very long. If things don't go his way, the world may come crumbling down. When he hears a drunk hollering below his window, Tommaso storms out of his building, prepared to grab this man by his throat and rip his larynx out with his bare hands. Moments later, though, after talking with the drunk, these two men part ways almost as best friends. Tommaso can have an angelic twinkle in his eye, and at the drop of a hat, that twinkle can turn to a white hot flame of rage.
Every time I wrote “he” or “Tommaso” I could just have easily written “I” or “Anthony.” In all my years of watching movies and television, or reading books as an adult, I have never related to a character more than I have to Tommaso. Whether that's good or bad doesn't really matter. The truth is that Abel Ferrara, as often as he has done it, projected perfectly what it's like to be a sober addict as well as being an artist in this film. Without meetings, thoughts of suicide plagued me. Every day I'd wake up and contemplate killing myself. It didn't matter if I wrote or painted or worked in the yard or had sex or played with my kids or watched tv with my wife. Evil, dark thoughts flooded my brain. And then I was dragged to AA and learned that talking about how I was feeling and meeting people who had similar experiences and thoughts helped immensely. Then, to see a movie from one of my favorite filmmakers of all time, living half way across the world, that shows exactly how I felt (and still feel sometimes), that depicts the same trials (however minor; it's all relative) I've experienced was like a giant hug from that teddy bear that still has a storm brewing inside.
I've met some of my best friends and some of the most incredible people because I got sober. There's a special, almost magical, bond that occurs between two addicts. It's something that doesn't allow words to define it. When you're with other addicts you feel at home. You become more comfortable than you've ever been. The few scenes in Tommaso that show him in his AA meetings show what being in that environment, surrounded by those people, can do to and for an addict. You're home. Nothing else matters at the moment. The big project you're working on doesn't exist. The strife at home isn't there. You are in your place with your people. It's the safest place you will be all day. And then we re-enter the world. And we try to carry that feeling from our meeting with us as long as it will last. And sometimes it will last a couple days. And sometimes it will last 30 seconds. Abel Ferrara put that on screen. For those that don't know what it's like to live as a sober addict, there is no better film that I've seen that depicts that sort of life as well as Tommaso.


  1. This is a king hell bastard of an article, Anthony. Well done. You moved me to tears.

    1. Thanks, Louis! I’ve found I’m happier if I allow myself to be vulnerable.

  2. Absolutely fantastic amigo. Thank you for the review.