Everyone knows that Willem Dafoe is one of our greatest actors (that’s been clear ever since he played the wrenching psychodramatic Jesus of “The Passion of the Christ,” 30 years ago). But because the film industry often shoehorns him into “character” roles, he is also one of our wiliest, most resourceful actors. Dafoe never just shows up — he’ll grab even the sketchiest part and burrow into it.
Take “Tommaso,” the first scripted drama in five years from the writer-director Abel Ferrara. (He’s been making off-the-cuff documentaries.) It’s in the genre of confessional autobiographical films about filmmakers, though this one is the shot-on-a-shoestring home-movie version. Dafoe, who also starred in Ferrara’s “Pasolini,” plays Tommaso, an American indie director living in Rome. The film was shot in Ferrara’s own apartment there, and it costars his wife, Cristina Chiriac, as Tommaso’s wife Nikki, and the couple’s real-life three-year-old daughter, Anna Ferrara , as three-year-old Deedee. Given the semi-scandalous details of life on the edge that have made Ferrara, over the years, into something of a self-dramatizing legend, I was primed to see a movie that looked like it might turn out to be a cross between “Bad Lieutenant” and “8½.”
The surprise of “Tommaso” is that it’s about an aging bad boy who has cleaned up his act. Dafoe’s Tommaso was an addict (booze, heroin, crack), and the more accurate thing to say, of course, is that he still is one. But it appears he has found a hard-won life of entitled serenity. Right to the end, he stays clean and sober.
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His partner, Nikki, is an Eastern European beauty 30 years his junior, and Deedee, the toddler they still call “the baby,” is the source of their connection. Early on, we see Tommaso going through his rituals: a lesson in how to speak Italian, a stop at the local market to see which vegetables are in season, grabbing a coffee, coming home to stir the orecchiette, settling in for quality time with his family and for a late-night snuggle-turned-shag on the couch with Nikki. It all looks like homespun paradise. And, of course, Tommaso attends 12-step meetings, where he details the sordid but now painful adventures of his past.
If you’re wondering, incidentally, whether Tommaso is the character’s first or last name, it’s never clear. Everyone calls him that (so it seems like his first name), but it isn’t exactly a typical American moniker, and it echoes “Ferrara” (which would mean that it’s his last name — but do Abel Ferrara’s friends all call him “Ferrara”?). At any rate, that’s an example of a detail that’s right up front yet not entirely worked out, and a lot of things in Abel Ferrara’s movies are like that. He has talent and urgency, but at 67 he’s still a poster boy for the bohemian shaggy-dog school of filmmaking without discipline.
Scene for scene, though, “Tommaso” feels alive as a movie. Dafoe won’t let a scene go by without finding an angle on it; he keeps you watching. The film, disappointingly, draws almost nothing from Ferrara’s decades of experience as a filmmaker. It’s not an inside-the-fringes-of-the-indie-world portrait; we never see Tommaso working. (That’s one of the reasons his life looks so cushy.) The movie, instead, is Ferrara’s cautionary slow-burn tale of a relationship in breakdown.
In the park, playing with his daughter, Tommaso looks over and sees something that fills him with a sense of betrayal. He holds his tongue, but from that moment on his marriage is in triage. Ferrara, working with a stately roving camera, and with scenes that feel worked out on the spot, has made a movie of feints and digressions, a portrait of a filmmaker who gets dragged down, even though he’s doing all he can to lead a sober, moral life. Tommaso teaches acting (in classes that look more inspired by Dafoe’s background in the Wooster Group than by anything in Ferrara’s), and there are a couple of bizarre moments — one in a class, one in a coffee shop — where he interfaces with women who are naked. Are these fantasies? They don’t feel like it, but they don’t feel quite real either. They’re fever dreams without the fever.
A movie that’s a loosely structured ramble can work, and about half of “Tommaso” feels more vital than anything Ferrara has made in a while. But the film should have been shapelier and 20 minutes shorter, with a more focused dramatic psychology.
Ferrara is on to something: the chasm that can open up between men and women in an age where the continuity of love has been devalued. Tommaso gets angrier and angrier at Nikki, and our sympathies are divided. She provokes him, but the way his rage overtakes him is destructive. Is the movie supposed to be about men feeling like they can no longer express anger? And about how that just pushes them to greater anger? (That’s a good subject; it’s the theme of Stephen King’s novel “The Shining.”) Or is it about a guy who has honestly cleaned up his act and the homebody fatale who betrays him? Dafoe could play any of these scenarios, but at times he seems to be playing all of them. He lurches between benevolence and violence, self-ownership and victimhood, as Ferrara struggles to figure out a way to make goodness as interesting as sin.