Tommaso (2019) ☆☆☆(3/4): A little playful piece by Abel Ferrara

Abel Ferrara’s latest film “Tommaso” is alternatively playful and fascinating as probably reflecting many parts of Ferrara’s life and career. Since he reached to the peak of his filmmaking career during the early 1990s with a series of darkly compelling films such as “Bad Lieutenant” (1992) and criminally underrated SF horror movie “Body Snatchers” (1993), Ferrara has become quite less prominent than before during last three decades, but he demonstrates here that he is still an interesting filmmaker to admire, and the movie is also elevated a lot by another terrific performance from his lead actor.

Willem Dafoe, who previously collaborated with Ferrara in several other films including “Pasolini” (2014) and “Siberia” (2020), plays Tommaso, a middle-aged American filmmaker currently residing in Rome, Italy along with his young Russian wife and their little daughter. At the beginning, we see him trying to learn Italian more from his private Italian teacher, and the mood becomes a bit more cheerful when he gives a little celebration of his teacher’s birthday.

After this scene, the movie calmly observes Tommaso’s family life as well as his daily life routines. He often spends lots of time with his wife for raising their little daughter together at their current residence, and he also teaches acting to a bunch of local young students. While he is usually accompanied with a translator, his English speeches always captivate his students, and one of the most interesting moments in the film comes from when he gets his students more motivated and energized via a group act at one point.

Watching the domestic scenes between Tommaso and his wife, we cannot help but notice a considerable age gap between them. Although a very intimate scene between them early in the movie conveys to us the substantial emotional relationship between them, Tommaso sometimes finds himself uncertain about their relationship with a growing sense of insecurity, and we accordingly get a brief ambiguous moment when he seems to imagine watching his wife having an affair with some younger dude.

In addition, it turns out that there are personal demons Tommaso has managed to dull and suppress during recent years. He routinely attends a local Alcoholic Anonymous (AA) meeting where he and other attendees certainly have each own story to tell, and the camera quietly observes him from the distance as he phlegmatically reminisces about his wild and dark days of drug and alcohol addiction. Dafoe, who is no stranger to the dark sides of human soul as shown from a number of intense performances throughout his long, illustrious acting career, is simply marvelous as subtly expressing his character’s bitter sadness and regret without any ounce of pity or exaggeration, and you may wonder how much of this poignantly personal moment is actually generated from his acting – or Ferrara, who seems to reflect a lot of himself on his troubled hero considering how much they overlap with each other in more than one aspect.

And we keep observing this considerable overlap between fiction and Ferrara’s life and career. While he has lived along with his family in Rome for a long time just like Tommaso, Ferrara also has his real-life wife and daughter play Tommaso’s wife and daughter in the film, and a certain movie project on which Tommaso has been working in the movie is apparently the fictional counterpart of “Siberia”. During his hero’s occasional moments of musing, it is very clear to us that Ferrara is attempting a sort of self-meditation, and this aspect is more accentuated by when their certain shared religious belief is presented to us.

This may feel a bit too self-indulgent from time to time, but Ferrara always compensates for that with a naughty sense of humor. During one scene in the middle of the film, Tommaso happens to have an argument with some drunken guy making lots of noises outside Tommaso’s apartment building at one night, but the tension between them is eventually decreased as they interact more with each other, and their last moment is actually touching to our surprise and amusement.

Moreover, the movie often crosses the boundary between reality and imagination as Tommaso comes to grapple more with his personal demons. There is an odd scene where he is suddenly taken to a local police station and then interrogated by one jaded detective, and their solemn conversation comes to evoke that biblical moment between Jesus and Pontius Pilate. Considering that Dafoe played Jesus in Martin Scorsese’s great religious film “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988), this is surely an amusing meta-joke to say the least, and Ferrara goes further with that aspect via two subsequent moments which will surely make you chuckle more.

I must point out that “Tommaso” is not entirely without flaws, and it unfortunately comes to lose its narrative pacing before making a sudden exit in the end, but Dafoe keeps holding our attention as usual. While he has become more prominent than before thanks to his recent two Oscar nominations, he has always been one of the most interesting actors of our time, and his richly nuanced performance here in this film, which is packed with myriad different human details to be noticed and appreciated, deserves more attention in my humble opinion. In short, this is another fruitful collaboration between him and Ferrara, and I sincerely hope that they will continue to work more together in the future.

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1 Response to Tommaso (2019) ☆☆☆(3/4): A little playful piece by Abel Ferrara

  1. Pingback: 10 movies of 2020 – and more: Part 2 | Seongyong's Private Place

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