In his most recent outing, filmmaking icon Abel Ferrara casts his frequent collaborator Willem Dafoe to play what is, essentially, a fictionalized version of himself: Dafoe’s Tommaso is, curiously, an American film director living in Rome, having left his home of New York. Ferrara’s own wife (Cristina Chiriac) and daughter (Anna Ferrara) are cast to play exactly those roles in Tommaso’s family, with the film even being shot in Ferrara’s own apartment and immediate surroundings. Tommaso is, then, very much an autobiographical film – one focused on depicting the artist’s mind-state, narratively unfolding via a loose chain of speculative events which are presumably based on Ferrara’s real-life insecurities and preoccupations.
We follow Tommaso’s routine almost step-by-step. He attends Italian classes to master the language of the country he now calls home, gliding through the narrow streets of Rome stopping for coffee, cheerfully greeting those who he comes across. It’s at home that he works on his next film project (one centered on Siberia, the subject of Ferrara’s next film) and spends time with his family. By night, he often attends group therapy sessions for drug-addiction, from which he has been free for several years.
Through these scenes, we understand that Tommaso is a man constantly searching for an inner balance – a restructured life of peace. Ferrara makes sure to transmit this not just through his script, or by directing Dafoe a certain way, but also via constant visual information that transmits to us the happenings inside Tommaso’s mind, be it creatively or emotionally. He introduces inner fantasies without context, switching up the cinematography, and even introduces archival footage and YouTube clips to illustrate what Tommaso is thinking about. These earlier scenes indicate a calm and soothing mood piece regarding one’s mental, emotional and spatial circumstances, and it’s remarkable how much attention to detail and affection Ferrara imbues his house and neighborhood with.
Things begin to go awry when issues of miscommunication between Tommaso and his wife start appearing, including suspicions of adultery. This is a catalyst for him going through a journey of self-reckoning that ends up having transformative effects on his character – for the worst. Ferrara eventually leads him down the rabbit hole of his own demons, with reckless abandon towards the balance he had previously tried to build for himself. To its great misfortune, and much like the lead character himself, Tommaso then also succumbs to its own worst instincts. A meditative and mature work of self-reflection in its beginnings, it then sadly warps into a bitter and rather one-note exercise in self-flagellation.
Abandoning the earnestness and dramatic work of its first half – responsible for the empathy felt towards the plight of Tommaso and those close to him – the second half is defined by an emotional coldness, dealing with the progressive mental-crumbling of the protagonist. Dealt with more maturity, this approach could have worked; but the later portions of the film are filled with juvenile and unsubtle ventures in symbolism, as well as strange thematic and formal deviations which don’t make for an engaging emotional arc. The tone of the film becomes one of total contempt, which is less morally challenging (as seems Ferrara’s intention in showing us Tommaso’s toxic behavior) than it is monotonous. This makes the final stretch more of a miserable slog than the beginning would suggest, despite its deeply insightful personal perspective.
Charismatic, charming, and genuinely likeable in a way only he could achieve, Dafoe’s performance is the one thing that remains consistently stellar throughout Tommaso. When he starts deteriorating, his confusion and eventual toxicity feel simultaneously captivating and deceiving – often stretching into the downright repulsive. The range Dafoe shows in this film just goes to show his versatility as a performer, always poignantly expressive with every muscle of his body.
Despite Dafoe’s best efforts, though, Tommaso doesn’t quite stick the landing. Its brutal honesty and directness in displaying a man reckoning with his own self-destructive thoughts is certainly something to be respected in its boldness. But it’s the simplistic crudeness of its conclusion that is so disappointingly unappealing – lacking a raw bluntness with its meandering soul-searching, whilst also failing to satisfy any narrative resolutions.