Through addiction, rehabilitation, and a post-recovery conversion from Catholicism to Buddhism, director Abel Ferrara has exhibited a scrappy sense of survival, a persistence reflected in films running the gamut from intimate chamber pieces to the wildly experimental. Yet even though he now carries himself with newfound (and frankly touching) calm, his tumultuous past cannot help but find its way into his newest movie, Tommaso, which joins a body of work chronicling troubled characters in downward spirals, most notably 1990’s Bad Lieutenant and 1993’s Dangerous Game.
Where Harvey Keitel’s tortured cop and Matthew Modine’s impulsive Hollywood A-lister were stand-ins for Ferrara, this time around it’s Willem Dafoe, who plays the title character, an American filmmaker in Rome. Tommaso amounts to something of a “composited autobiography” between actor and director, and as in previous films Ferrara’s “presence” never feels forced or performative. The casting of Ferrara’s wife, Cristina Chiaric, as Tommaso’s wife, and his daughter Anna as his child, adds to the authenticity. (This is not new: Ferrara cast a former wife and a girlfriend as themselves in two earlier movies.) On top of that, Ferrara’s own Roman apartment is the central location of Tommaso. All this domesticity serves a distinct purpose, which is to put the concept of domesticity itself under a microscope. And what’s revealed, in largely unscripted, improvisational fashion, is just how confounding and contradictory it can be: equal parts tranquility and tempest.
We see the former as Tommaso accompanies Anna to the playground or prepares dinner with Cristina. And when apart from his family he’s happily busy bouncing across a picturesque Rome to Italian classes (where he’s a student) and acting seminars (where he’s a teacher), from his favorite open-air cafe to AA meetings. He’s also hard at work researching and scripting his next film (which in another self-referential gesture is Ferrara’s own Siberia, a long-gestating project that had its festival premier earlier this year).
But this idyll doesn’t last long. Ferrara gradually chips away at the illusion of happy domesticity he’s created. We learn that Tommaso is sexually frustrated, a situation not helped by the fact that Anna sleeps in the same bed as mother and father. He’s also insecure and prone to hallucinations that Cristina is having an affair with a younger, attractive Italian man. These moments of self-doubt are subtle at first, slipping in among the quotidian rhythms of the narrative. But soon the visions begin to take over, and as they do, his grasp on reality seems to slip: Are his dreams encroaching on his real life, or is it the other way around?