There’s often a fine line between the stories an auteur chooses to put on screen and their own life. Tommaso is a perfect example, with writer/director Abel Ferrara setting his new film in his own Rome apartment, and casting his wife and three-year-old daughter in the supporting roles.
The lead is played by Willem Dafoe, on fantastic form as a New York filmmaker struggling to find a sense of identity and a new home in the city. So does Ferrara manage to turn his personal demons into a something compelling, or is this simply a vanity project from the former Hollywood hell-raiser?
You couldn’t wish for a better surrogate than Dafoe, who is as charming and thoughtful in a role tailor-made for him. Ferrara takes the time to establish his peaceful daily routine, which pays dividends once his personal relationships become more complicated. He works hard learning Italian to assimilate, he stops off at local cafés for quick espressos, and he picks fresh vegetables from the grocer’s. In short, it’s the most wholesome Dafoe has ever been.
His relationship with Nikki, the mother of his child, seems doomed from the start (which must ring alarm bells for Cristina Chiriac, Ferrara’s real-life wife) but their growing strife is well played, with the sensitive, cautious Tommaso clashing with her independent, free spirit. We’ve seen relationship troubles like this play out in countless films before but Dafoe gives it more weight than most. You can really see how hard he’s trying to make this new life work, and how much it hurts him when things go wrong.
Gradually it is revealed that Tomasso is also still dealing with more serious personal issues from his past, including battling alcoholism, just like Ferrara. This struggle is movingly portrayed without ever falling into the cliché of Tomasso hitting the bottle when times get hard. His visits to AA are a good excuse for Dafoe to deliver some great heartfelt monologues, and a brief encounter with a drunk homeless man is a compassionate and comic gem.
However unlikely it might seem from the opening scenes, this wouldn’t be a Ferrara film without some violence. Considering the control and delicacy of what preceded, it’s a shame to see him default to bloodshed, especially when it feels so out of character. A few dreamlike scenes of magical realism suggest Tommaso’s state of mind isn’t entirely intact, but nevertheless, the final 15 minutes feel like they’re from another film.
Ferrara digs deep into his personal life to deliver a sweet, honest character study of a man struggling with guilt and anxiety. Dafoe is incredible, but the film’s big finish feels like a step backwards after such an intimate, accepting and redemptive tale.