Fatherhood and midlife doldrums are not the usual terrain for director Abel Ferrara, whose dark tales of angry urbanites have coalesced into a striking vision of despair across several decades, but everyone grows up sometime. In the scrappy and often endearing drama “Tommaso,” Ferrara casts regular muse Willem Dafoe as a fictionalized version of the filmmaker himself, a broken man still picking up the pieces from his prior misdeeds to find some measure of stability. Having found a new life in Italy with a much younger wife and child — both played by the real ones in Ferrara’s life — the eponymous Tommaso struggles to reconcile a new beginning with the stumbles of the past.
A microbudget “Birdman” about the travails of a once-successful artist losing his grasp on reality, “Tommaso” comes across as Ferrara’s most personal work on many levels. The lo-fi chamber piece is a messy, ruminative self-portrait, elevated by Dafoe’s extraordinary performance and a striking intimacy that sets the movie apart from much of Ferrara’s work.
Shot on grimy digital video in the filmmaker’s real home, “Tommaso” looks like it was made on a budget of loose change, but it musters an absorbing atmosphere from the outset. Six years sober, Tommaso has fled his filmmaking career in the U.S. and settled into a routine with his wife Nikki (Christina Chiriac) and toddler Deedee (Anna Ferrara). The couple enjoy a supportive relationship that allows Tommaso the luxury of taking Italian classes and tinkering away at a new screenplay, while Nikki tackles most of the necessary parenting duties. But there are already cracks showing in the nature of this relationship balance, as an attempt at late-night sex ends abruptly when the child starts to cry. Tommaso may finally have the family life he could never quite figure out in his drug-added previous chapter, but that family has little use for him.
Unfolding across a short summer period, “Tommaso” takes place throughout the vacant city streets, as Dafoe’s lonely character wanders from candid group therapy sessions for addicts to relaxed coffee shops, experimental dance workshops and sometimes into his own mind. Fragmented moments provide a range of insights into Tommaso’s clumsy attempts to be a better man — arguing, and then making awkward peace, with a homeless drunk late at night, or walking home a fellow addict and possibly flirting with her, his good nature seems as though it could disintegrate at any moment. And when it does, Dafoe unleashes a tragic firestorm of pent-up rage, giving himself over to a vivid window into this paradox of a man.
The actor has always been a dependable leading man, but in “Tommaso,” he’s the essential weapon that catapults the movie the limited potential of observational vignettes. The term “mumblecore” was coined years ago to describe a loose range of low-budget American indies with aimless characters and minimal plot, but it’s a far more accurate description for “Tommaso,” in which Dafoe transforms a mumbling sad sack into a ticking time bomb. As his frustrations grow, the movie’s final act reaching a riveting, suspenseful conclusion as it remains unclear just how much he’s prone to explode.
For all of its empathy toward Tommaso, however, the movie has a tendency to stay too close to his view of the world (which is perhaps inevitable, given the storyteller behind the camera). Ferrara’s wife Christina has been relegated to a supporting player in this testosterone-infused fantasia, where nude women have a tendency to crop up in every facet of Tommaso’s life, from theater rehearsal sessions to coffee shop fantasies. As it wanders through Tommaso’s life, some aspects of his routine take on a redundant quality, though they just as often illustrate how that routine has started to get to him.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Ferrara movie without some jagged edges. “Tommaso” manages to feel rough and risky while somehow sensitive at the same time, like the best of them. It’s fascinating to watch the character work to contain his combustible personality, going on at therapy sessions about his quest to become “emotionally available” and attempting to write a new film that might be “too sentimental.”
Ferrara’s in a confident space with the story’s contained, almost claustrophobic fixation on Tommaso’s life. The tight quarters of the character’s apartment bear a close resemblance to the Tribeca loft where Dafoe wandered in Ferrara’s apocalyptic “4:44: Last Day on Earth.” That movie built to the end of the world, while this one focuses on a man who dreads that his own could collapse at any moment. Throughout the movie, Ferrara injects jarring, violent twists as the character imagines terrible events happening to him and his family. While outwardly embraces stability, Tommaso still lives on the edge.
Werner Herzog regular Peter Zeitlinger supplies the grimy cinematographer, which at times feels almost too cheap to register as more than a distraction. But in certain key scenes, it has a warm, intimate quality in tune with the nature of the project.
Ferrara has claimed that “Tommaso” isn’t exactly autobiographical, but the parallels are obvious in the character’s Buddhist lifestyle, and the rest of the cast (Anna Ferrara maintains an authentic presence, as the child is convincing enough). In one group therapy session, Tommaso recalls a failed attempt to shoot a sequel to “La Dolce Vita” in Miami, an experience that Ferrara has discussed in numerous interviews. And Tommaso’s plans for a new production may or may not be “Siberia,” the bigger-budget Ferrara/Dafoe team-up set for later this year.
But in other ways, “Tommaso” has a fantastical quality that roots it in the fictional realm. The movie consolidates the desperate masculine figures at the center of so many Ferrara stories before it, while pushing that archetype into new terrain. From its bittersweet opening moments to the disturbing homage to Dafoe’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” performance at the end, “Tommaso” is a gripping look at the process of escaping to a better life, only to find that the old one follows along at every turn.
“Tommaso” premiered in the Official Selection at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.