“Tommaso” is Abel Ferrara’s meditation on an American actor living in Rome. In true Ferrara fashion, the film is haunting, melancholic and edgy. Ferrara (“Pasolini”) remains one of the most uncompromising directors.
Tommaso (Willem Dafoe) is an American actor expat in Rome with his much younger wife Nikki (Cristina Chiriac) and their toddler. Tommaso agonizes over a screenplay he is writing and it is not going well. He looks to disperse some tension by lovemaking with his wife, but they are interrupted by the baby at the most intense times. The actor takes solace in conducting his own acting classes but he grows increasingly boorish and nitpicking, going on about genuine emotions and feelings.
Events trouble him further when Nikki doesn’t adhere to his travel plan by refusing his protective offer for a cab, and he is left feeling emasculated. He tries yoga but can only manage a few moments here and there, frequently distracted by the phone and Nikki’s sundry talk. His only hours of mindfulness occur at an AA meeting. The equilibrium ultimately crumbles when he is left out of a family lunchtime meal.
At every turn it feels as if the actor is pursued by a dark force, a demon or a shadow. He can’t seem to get his screenplay going, his notes are scattered and in disorder with writing on the page that looks like scratches from an animal. Tommaso begins to have dreams of naked women and himself as Jesus (echoing Dafoe’s own role in Scorsese’s “Last Temptation of Christ”). By day he is left sweaty and unkempt.
In other hands this domestic purgatory might be hard to take but Dafoe’s nervousness and intensity combined with Ferrara’s liquid and eerie visions, make this film compulsive and compelling. Defoe’s very eyes pull one in and it is impossible to look away. Just who is Tommaso? Up until the final third of the film we are never quite sure. Dafoe oscillates so quickly between sweetness and rage. But the animal in him is never totally hidden.
Though “Tommaso” may not be for everyone, Willem Dafoe is terrific and Ferrara’s depictions are confrontational and startling. Both talents are in force here making the film an experience, hypnotic and watchable.
This film is part of the Tropic’s Virtual Cinematheque Series. Get tickets here and support the Tropic!
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