Tommaso: A Director Prepares, by David Bax
When Tommaso (Willem Dafoe), the title character in Abel Ferrara’s new film, dances like a goofball dad along to the song being performed on a corny, televised variety show, it seems almost like we’re going to be treated to an uncommon portrait of domestic contentment, especially if you’re aware that Tommaso’s smiling wife and daughter are played by Ferrara’s actual wife and daughter (Cristina Chiriac and Anna Ferrara). But that wouldn’t be Ferrara’s bailiwick and, by the time Tommaso condescends to his wife, Nikki, “So I have two children now?!”, it’s clear that this May/December romance is not in a state of bliss. It’s going to take effort–perhaps more than Tommaso has in him–to fix it. Which brings us to Tommaso‘s real interest, an examination of various nontraditional kinds of work.
Tommaso is an American filmmaker living in Rome. He earns money teaching acting classes, in between which he prepares his next project and attends regular AA meetings. It seems to be a fulfilling life for a career artist of his age but it doesn’t leave him much time for anyone else, including and most especially his family.
For the first time, Ferrara teams with director of photography Peter Zeitlinger. The cinematographer has been Werner Herzog’s go-to guy, especially on documentaries, for the last quarter century. In Tommaso, he brings a mix of casualness and starkness recognizable from Herzog’s work. And, with a bevy of roaming Steadicam shots that look unapologetically digital, the final product also bears a resemblance to the films of Michael Mann.
Tommaso‘s unadorned, nouvelle vérité beauty fits perfectly with its naturalistically conversational tone. Cast largely with non-professional actors working from a semi-improvised script, much of the dialogue is grippingly realistic. Tommaso is too focused and ambitious to engage in small talk but his discussions with students, collaborators, friends, family and particularly fellow addicts are genuine, never theatrical.
Conversation is not what we generally think of when we use the word “work.” None of what Tommaso does is, really. His storyboarding of his next movie (which are actually storyboards for Siberia, the movie Ferrara and Dafoe made after Tommaso and which premiered at Berlin earlier this year) are more like playing pretend and his new agey, touchy-feely acting classes are pretty far removed from most people’s 9-to-5. But, by other definitions, everything Tommaso does is a kind of work. In addition to his artistic pursuits, he’s working on his sobriety (successfully) and his marriage (less so). Tommaso is an argument that life ought to be a conscious and constant endeavor to be a better person.
This is Ferrara, though, so there’s no promise that such a thing is actually achievable. The only respite from the grind is art or dreaming, which the film suggests are essentially the same. Tommaso is peppered with scenes of Dafoe playing the part of a modern-day Jesus (The Last Temptation of Christ is never far from the mind); it’s intentionally unclear if these are fantasies or sequences from one of the character’s previous films. Even in dreamland, though, heaven is not promised. Tommaso ends up fulfilling the promise of the foreboding groundwork Ferrara lays along the way (including some distressing real life bear attack footage) but this is, somehow, still a startlingly hopeful film for the director.