Review: Willem Dafoe brings quiet grace to Abel Ferrara’s ‘Tommaso’
Following a string of documentaries, filmmaker Abel Ferrara returns with “Tommaso,” his first fiction feature since 2014’s “Pasolini.” As with that film, Ferrara’s latest is again filmed in Italy and stars frequent collaborator Willem Dafoe in a striking performance.
“Tommaso” is an apparently semi-autobiographical sketch of Ferrara’s recent life in Rome. The title character fills his days grocery shopping, studying Italian, stopping into a café for a coffee, spending time with his wife and young daughter — Ferrara’s real wife, Cristina Chiriac, and their daughter Anna Ferrara play those roles in the film — cooking, attending recovery meetings and working on his next film project.
Yet Tommaso’s low-key life becomes increasingly clouded by painful visions of his wife cheating with another man, his own fantasies of other women or worries for his daughter’s safety. It seems he is unable to allow himself a life free of drama and turmoil.
The camera stays close to Dafoe for nearly every moment of the movie and he brings a compelling vibrancy to the screen. He somehow conveys both the tranquility of Tommaso’s current life and all that simmers just under the surface. When the character unleashes moments of rage or torment, Dafoe transitions with terrifying ease.
Few actors have been on the astonishing run of Dafoe in the past few years, in smaller indie films such as “The Florida Project,” “At Eternity’s Gate” and “The Lighthouse” and larger-scale studio films including “Murder on the Orient Express” “Motherless Brooklyn” and even “Aquaman.” He fully commits to all these roles and is one of the most fully energized and alive actors working today, decades deep into his career. There is a scene in “Tommaso” where Dafoe leads a class of young acting students that is itself extremely compelling and even instructive. A scene of him going through his regular yoga practice is revealing in a different way.
For all the outward tough-guy posturing of his best-known works like “The King of New York” or “Bad Lieutenant,” Ferrara’s films have always had a striving quality to them, a curiosity, sensitivity and compassion along with — like the filmmaker to whom he is most easily compared, Martin Scorsese — an obsessive, passionate need for grace amidst chaos. For all the gentleness and tranquility of his new life, Tommaso still burns for something else.
Just how closely to read this all as actual autobiography is anyone’s guess. The film that Tommaso is working on seems to be what would become “Siberia,” a film directed by Ferrara starring Dafoe that premiered earlier this year at the Berlin Film Festival. There has always been something mercurial about Ferrara as a filmmaker, with a hustler’s restlessness and a poet’s attention.
Even as Ferrara has apparently quieted some of the well-documented demons in his personal life, perhaps the troubling visions in “Tommaso” are a key to what continues to drive Ferrara as a filmmaker, a desire to transform that internal anguish into something external, manifested in the world. As with the film’s final moments, which pointedly recall Dafoe’s role in Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ,” it builds to something unexpected, nearing transcendence.
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