Sunday, June 7, 2020

Willem Dafoe portrays a film director

Director Abel Ferrara’s Tommaso frustrates as often as it illuminates.

With Tommaso, director Abel Ferrara has made a film that I've seen described as semi-autobiographical. I don't know how close to the reality of his life Ferrara has gotten. Judging by the ways in which its main character puts himself in the middle of an unraveling patchwork of a life, I hope not too close.

An independent-minded director, Ferrara has been charting his own course since the early 1970s. During his prolific career, Ferrara, who'll be 69 next month, has divided audiences and critics with movies such as The King of New York (1990) and Bad Lieutenant (1994).

In Tommaso , Ferrara strikes notes that rely almost entirely on his main actor, Willem Dafoe, who has worked with the director on several other movies. Here, Dafoe plays Tommaso, a director who has been living in Rome for several years with a much younger Eastern European wife (Cristina Chiriac) and the couple's three-year-old daughter.

Tommaso is trying hard to put a turbulent past behind him; he has renounced the drugs and alcohol that wrecked his stateside life and he seems intent on constructing some kind of family life in Rome, perhaps as a form of contrition for too much previous bad behavior.

Dafoe moves Tommaso through a variety of scenes that suggest the cobbled-together life of an ex-patriot. He runs an acting school where the focus seems to be on uninhibited movement. He takes care of his daughter and cooks meals when his wife won't. He also attends meetings with fellow addicts and tries to overcome the increasing disdain of a wife who seems eager to spend as little time with him as possible.

When he's stressed, Tommaso meditates or practices yoga. Occasionally, he can be seen working on a screenplay. He's taken up Buddhism.

Dafoe rarely disappoints. He gives Ferrara everything he can, never shying away from the fact that Tommaso can be a real pain in the butt.

It's unlikely anyone will confuse Tommaso with an exercise in rigorously disciplined filmmaking, and there are images (Tommaso meeting a naked woman at a coffee shop) that aren't easily explained. Scenes set in Tommaso's 12-step group feel repetitive and Ferrara can't resist adding an explosive bit of violence toward the end.

No faulting Dafoe, who's game for anything, even allowing Ferrara to refer to the actor's appearance in The Passion of the Christ. You’ll have to get to the film's end to find out how this happens.

Many flaws can be tolerated when a filmmaker works close to the bone, but for me, the movie’s indulgences, its insularity, its fantasies and confessions left little room for any characters other than Tommaso, which, in turn, made me wonder whether Ferrara hadn’t made a film that’s talking mostly to itself.

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