Review: ‘Tommaso,’ starring Willem Dafoe

June 7, 2020

by Carla Hay

Willem Dafoe and Cristina Chiriac in “Tommaso” (Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber)

“Tommaso”

Directed by Abel Ferrara

Italian and English with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Rome, the drama “Tommaso” has a predominantly white cast (with a few black people) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A middle-aged American filmmaker who’s a recovering drug addict/alcoholic has emotional conflicts while he’s started a new life in Italy.

Culture Audience: “Tommaso” will appeal primarily to fans of filmmaker Abel Ferrara and actor Willem Dafoe, as well to people who like arthouse movies that don’t follow a conventional storytelling structure.

Anna Ferrara, Willem Dafoe and Cristina Chiriac in “Tommaso” (Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber)

Abel Ferrara is one of those filmmakers who had a reputation for being quite the provocateur back in the 1980s and 1990s (his most famous movie is 1992’s “Bad Lieutenant”), but his films in more recent decades have lost a lot of their edge and originality.  Although the drama “Tommaso” is elevated by the terrific talent of star Willem Dafoe, too much of the movie is unfocused and self-indulgent, and it’s far from being one of Ferrara’s best films.

People interested in seeing “Tommaso” should know up front that the movie is more of a psychological portrait than a straightforward narrative. And it becomes clear early on in the story that although the film is told from the perspective of the title character Tommaso (played by Dafoe), his narrative viewpoint is very unreliable. The overall concept for “Tommaso” (which is loosely inspired by Ferrara’s own real-life experiences) also isn’t very original: a man going through a mid-life crisis.

In the beginning of the movie, it seems as if Tommaso has a contented life: He’s an American filmmaker who’s moved to Italy and started a new family with his 29-year-old Russian-Italian partner Nikki (played by Ferrara’s real-life wife Cristina Chiriac), who’s the mother of their pre-school-age daughter DeeDee (played by Ferrara’s real-life daughter Anna Ferrara). Tommaso and Nikki both seem to be very devoted parents, but there’s some unease in their love relationship, which becomes more fraught during the course of the movie.

Nikki is a homemaker, while Tommaso works a great deal from home too, so they are both able to spend quality time with DeeDee. Just like Ferrara, Tommaso is a New Yorker who moved to Italy several years ago to start a new life and a new family with a new romantic partner. Tommaso also appears to be a fading independent filmmaker, since he lives in a middle-class apartment with Nikki and DeeDee. Tommaso is well-known enough to have recognition in the international film community, but he’s not financially wealthy by any stretch of the imagination.

And when Tommaso talks about his best work, it seems to be in his distant past when he was living in the United States and when he was in the throes of his addiction to drugs and alcohol. Now clean and sober for six years, Tommaso is working on a new screenplay, but he seems to have writer’s block and he doesn’t have much contact with his peers in the film industry.

Instead, Tommaso spends most of his days taking care of DeeDee (when he brings her to a local park to play with other kids her age, he’s the only male parent there); going to his favorite café; taking Italian language lessons; practicing yoga alone; and teaching an acting class that places a lot of emphasis on body movement. At night, he regularly goes to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, where members of the group share their addiction stories and talk about other problems in their lives.

Tommaso seems to have an easygoing, friendly demeanor, but he shows flashes of anger and controlling behavior with Nikki. One day, when Nikki decides to take DeeDee on a day trip to visit Nikki’s mother, Nikki says she’s taking the metro, but Tommaso insists that she takes a taxi instead. He refuses to listen to her saying that it’s not necessary for him to call a taxi, and he calls one anyway. On another day in their home, he yells at Nikki because she started to eat lunch without him. He angrily berates her for not telling him that lunch was ready so that he could eat lunch with her.

Tommaso also complains to Nikki and to other people (including members of his AA support group and even a random taxi driver) that Nikki’s not paying enough attention to him and that when he tries to help her, she “pushes” him away. He also tells his AA support group some of Nikki’s personal history, such as how Nikki’s mother left Nikki’s abusive, alcoholic father when Nikki was 4, and that Nikki is still estranged from her father and has emotional issues because of it.

While in a taxi, Tommaso gripes to the driver that everything changed after DeeDee was born, and that he feels like Nikki has been shutting him out emotionally and putting all of her energy into raising DeeDee. Tommaso’s complaints are classic signs of a narcissist who gets very jealous if he’s not the center of attention.

As for Tommaso and Nikki’s sex life, it’s been dwindling, and Tommaso usually has to initiate their sexual intimacy, while Nikki seems increasingly reluctant, as if she’s falling out of love with Tommaso. One day, while Tommaso is at the park with DeeDee, Tommaso sees Nikki passionately kissing a blonde bearded man (played by Stefano Papa) in his late 20s or early 30s. When Tommaso sees Nikki later at home, he doesn’t tell her what he saw, and he acts as if nothing is wrong.

But did this act of infidelity really happen, or is it in Tommaso’s head? There are signs throughout the movie that Tommaso has a vivid imagination or is seriously delusional. In one scene, he’s at his favorite café, and there’s no one else there except for him and the attractive young waitress he usually sees there—except when she serves him his espresso, she’s completely naked.

And the story also has a fantasy sequence of Tommaso being led in handcuffs to a police station, where the police chief interrogates Tommaso about trying to create civil unrest by making speeches in the piazza. Tommaso replies, “The trouble with you is your mind is closed. You lack empathy.”

There’s also a scene where Tommaso is on his apartment balcony when he sees Nikki and DeeDee below on a sidewalk. He calls out and waves to them. And then, DeeDee runs out into the street and gets hit by a car. But it turns out to be a horrific hallucination from Tommaso.

And there’s another gruesome delusion where Tommaso is at the park and sitting around a fire with unidentified African men, when he reaches into his chest, takes out his bloody heart, and offers it to them.  “Where is all of this going?” viewers might ask.

Although “Tommaso” doesn’t have a coherent plot, it’s clear that the movie is supposed to be a story of Tommaso’s psychological unraveling. Much of the film consists of what appears to be mundane “slice of life” routines in Tommaso’s life, but as the story unfolds, some of the scenes in the movie can be interpreted as “reality” or “fantasy” in Tommaso’s life.

The best scenes in “Tommaso” are those with Tommaso at the AA meetings, because they are the scenes where Tommaso not only opens up the most emotionally but he (and the viewers) get outside of Tommaso’s head and experience empathy for these group members’ stories. It is during one of these meetings that Tommaso breaks down and cries when he confesses regret about the two adopted daughters he abandoned from his first marriage. “Tommaso” would have been a much better movie if it had included more scenes from the AA meetings and less scenes of Tommaso in his acting classes, which look more like New Age exercise classes than any discussion of real acting.

Even though the storytelling in “Tommaso” isn’t linear, the movie does a fairly good job of unpeeling the layers of Tommaso’s gentlemanly façade, thanks to Dafoe’s riveting performance. In one well-acted scene, after an AA meeting, Tommaso offers to walk home one of the meeting’s young women (an American who’s temporarily staying in Italy), since he appears to be concerned about her walking home alone at night.

During their conversation back to her place, he starts asking her about her love life, and she admits she’s “happily single.” Tommaso makes a point of telling her that he’s always had a romantic partner in his life, which is his subtle way of saying that he’s never had a problem getting women. It’s clear that Tommaso is fishing to see if this woman has any vulnerabilities. He seems a little disappointed when they arrive at her place and she gives him a friendly kiss on the cheek, making it clear that she’s not interested in sleeping with Tommaso.

Tommaso’s relationship with women can be considered fairly problematic, since he only seems interested in women who are at least 25 years younger than he is, and he doesn’t seem interested in treating any women as equals. He flirts with his young Italian instructor (played by Maricla Amoriello) and uses a “breathing exercise lesson” as an excuse to get his arms around her and rub parts of her body. And when he and a young female student (played by Alessandra Camilla Scarci) from his acting class are alone in her car, and she starts complaining about her father, it’s not a shock when he uses this moment of “daddy issues” vulnerability to start making out with her.

It’s no doubt symbolic of Tommaso’s narcissism that he, Nikki and DeeDee are among the few people with names in the movie. And it’s also symbolic of Ferrara’s “old school” male gaze that there are several women in the movie who have full frontal nudity but none of the men.

It was considered edgy when Ferrara’s “Bad Lieutenant” featured a full-frontal male nude scene with star Harvey Keitel. But now, Ferrara seems to have lost that edge by walking down the same, tired cliché path of other filmmakers who put completely naked women in their movies just because they can. The attitude with these “male gaze” filmmakers seems to be that showing a full-frontal naked man in a movie is an unacceptable threat, even in a sex scene where a woman is required to be naked too.

Dafoe has such a high caliber of acting talent that he is the main reason to watch this rambling and often-dull movie, whose running time is almost two hours. Although the cinematography from Peter Zeitlinger is occasionally very eye-catching, ultimately, the screenplay, editing and overall direction of “Tommaso” are muddled and at times sloppy. Some people might also be upset with how the movie ends. But if viewers do make it to the end of the film, they’ll have to slog through this “reality versus fantasy” world that ends up confusing who the real Tommaso is and thereby obscuring his humanity.

Kino Lorber released “Tommaso” in select U.S virtual cinemas on June 5, 2020.