Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Seasoned Ticket 91
We’ve got another revenue-sharing film this week, this time for the new one by Abel Ferrara, Tommaso. Kino Lorber is releasing the film so that the Grand Illusion will share in the proceeds, if you watch the movie through this link.
If you’re up for the adventure in movie-watching that is the filmography of Abel Ferrara, Scarecrow has it going on. It’s a real diary of a madman. I would begin with King of New York. My review of Tommaso:
Some movies you like from their opening moments, and Abel Ferrara’s Tommaso was like that for me: We watch a few scenes in which the title character, an American filmmaker in Rome, goes about in what we infer are his regular rounds: a private Italian lesson in a nondescript building, an espresso slugged back at the counter of a neighborhood café. Tommaso is played by Willem Dafoe, who conveys a bouncy sort of expatriate ease. This opening stanza more or less finishes at night, as Tommaso and his wife Nikki (Cristina Chiriac, Ferrara’s real-life wife) steal a few moments for sex on the couch when their kid finally goes to sleep, only to be forestalled when baby wakes up crying.
This event predicts the movie’s main crisis for Tommaso, which is his snappish adjustment to domestic life and the apparent shift in Nikki’s affections. Because he’s surrounded by attractive women—in both the acting classes where he is the charismatic leader and in his AA meetings—his homefront frustrations result in a handful of flirtations, although at a certain point it’s clear that some of them are fantasies, as when the barista at his favorite coffee place serves him a cup while stark naked. Here Ferrara dances nimbly into Fellini territory, which suits the setting, of course, even if Tommaso’s American daydreams are less opulent than the Fellini versions. If anything, given Tommaso’s priapic energy, creative impulses, and self-centered neediness, Ferrara (born in 1951) shows himself as the last of the great mid-century American horndogs—maybe not in exactly the same vein as the likes of Mailer and Roth and Updike, but at least on the continuum.
What’s interesting is that Ferrara seems to chuckle at Tommaso’s floundering, to the point of imagining him as Christ on the cross in a Rome parking lot, a role you might say Dafoe was born to play. Even when he behaves badly, Tommaso stays roughly sympathetic, or maybe just intriguing, which is at least as important. A lot of that has to do with Dafoe’s performance, which is somehow fully unto itself—whatever Tommaso is doing, from his breathing exercises to hopefully padding along beside a much younger woman he’s walking home after an AA meeting, Dafoe always moves like an artist.
Tommaso has its share of baffling elements, and Chiriac’s inexperience seems a little unfairly exposed set next to Dafoe’s fluid mastery of his craft. Probably some will read the film as an expression of toxic masculinity rather than a delve into it. But there’s something about the film’s sunny, casual strategy that wears well. And although Ferrara doesn’t spend a lot of time depicting Tommaso actually at his art—some curious excerpts from a filmmaking project on his computer files have to suffice—in a basic way Tommaso is about being an artist, and the trade-offs and negotiations that go along with that. This is one of those films that doesn’t care whether you asked or needed to see it, because it’s so confident of its own reason to exist.
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.