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‘Tommaso’: Willem Dafoe an able surrogate in Abel Ferrara’s appealingly messy self-portrait

The veteran actor stars alongside the director’s real-life wife and daughter, in his real-life apartment.

In Abel Ferrara’s “Tommaso” Willem Dafoe plays a fictionalized version of the director.
Kino Lorber

Willem Dafoe is like a human gargoyle, and I mean that in the best possible way. Rarely have we seen such a chiseled-from-stone visage capable of a thousand different expressions, each unique to Dafoe’s signature style. He’s been one of our best actors for some 40 years and a hundred roles, and he adds another original performance to his resume as the title character in “Tommaso,” Abel Ferrara’s semi-autobiographical, indie-style slice of life.

Just as Antonio Banderas served as Pedro Almodovar’s onscreen doppelganger in last year’s “Pain and Glory,” Dafoe’s independent film director Tommaso is a fictionalized version of Ferrara. Adding to the art imitating life imitating art factor: Ferrara’s real-life wife, Cristina Chiriac, plays Tomasso’s much younger, Eastern European wife Nikki, and the couple’s real-life daughter Anna plays the fictional couple’s fictional 3-year-old daughter, Deedee. And the apartment that serves as the family home in Rome is the real-life residency of Ferrara, Chiriac and Anna. (That’s one way to cut down the commute home after a day’s worth of shooting.)

“Tommaso” has an appealing, casually messy, docu-style approach, as if we’re eavesdropping on these lives. The title character, an American filmmaker, apparently hasn’t worked on a project in quite a while; he spends his days teaching acting classes, working on his Italian, perusing the markets for fresh ingredients for that evening’s dinner and regularly attending meetings and telling fascinating but harrowing stories from the days when he was hooked on booze, pot, coke, heroin, you name it. For all his jagged history and his apparent case of artist’s block, Tommaso seems at peace with himself. He’s madly in love with his gorgeous and vivacious if somewhat scattered wife, he adores his daughter and revels in cooking her dinner or taking her to the park, and he appears to be content to live out his days in bohemian bliss.

But things start to unravel after Tommaso by chance sees something that makes him doubt everything about his marriage. He grows resentful of Nikki and lashes out at her, and she responds by disappearing for long stretches of time and coming up with halfhearted excuses why she didn’t return his calls or texts. A relationship that might have been so idyllic in the first place seems in danger of imploding.

The relatively straightforward main plot about Tommaso and Nikki often gives way to surreal detours, including two instances in which a fully nude young woman approaches Tommaso and folds into his touch. It’s not clear whether these sequences are actually happening, or fantasies inside Tommaso’s head. What’s clear is that for all his supposed devotion to Nikki, she’s not the only one who isn’t being transparent in their marriage. (Another scene, which is terrifying and dreadful, is clearly a warped daydream of Tomasso’s.)

One of the film’s most telling scenes is an apparent throwaway moment that turns into something bigger. Tommaso confronts a drunken homeless man who is yelling on the street beneath his apartment late at night, and bargains with the man to shut up. He’s firm but not cruel to that man, perhaps because he realizes there was a time when he was on the verge of being that man.