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Tommaso

by on June 5, 2020
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It’s astounding that, even in this current new release drought, some films can still slip by. With very little being released week-to-week, I was expecting the independent films that were still scheduled to be released to get some more spotlight in the VOD market, spreading awareness to a market that would’ve been overshadowed if it had to take on Black Widow. Alas, months into the pandemic, that doesn’t seem to have happened, although that thankfully doesn’t keep the releases from coming. An interesting addition this weekend is Abel Ferrara’s Tommaso, a drama set in Italy that gives Willem Dafoe the absolute spotlight. With these two veterans at the helm, I ecstatically dove into the relatively unknown film to see what this could bring to both of their extensive filmographies. 

 

Dafoe plays the titular character of Tommaso, an American artist who lives and works in Rome. He has a European wife (who I believe is from Moldavia) named Nikki (Cristina Chiriac) and a three-year-old daughter named Dee Dee (Anna Ferrara). The film follows Tommaso like a fly on a wall, capturing his daily life as well as his difficult relationship with his wife. As the film progresses, the viewer begins to discover Tommaso’s tumultuous past with addiction, guilt, and anger, sowing the seeds of a man who has lived a long life but seems to have difficulty choosing where it takes him. However, as his insecurities, paranoia, and lust begin to take almost physical form, Tommaso does the best he can to stay positive in a life that feels like it’s only going in circles. 

 

Abel Ferrara’s direction gives Tommaso the feeling that the audience is a ghost, following Tommaso at his best, most vulnerable, and even at his most destructive. The cinematography from Peter Zeitlinger gives the film a natural, lived-in vibe, keeping shots going just long enough to make an awkward pause or a frustrating situation more palpable than if the film cut as soon as the point got across. This naturalistic take on the narrative also leads to moments that organically grow Tommaso and his most frequent acquaintances, giving Dafoe every single chance to breathe life into the character. The Lubezki/Malick-esque approach to the camerawork strangely works too well in places, even going so far as to harkening back to one of Ferrara’s most well-known works, 1992’s Bad Lieutenant. While there are scenes that are definitely too long, there are some instances where drawn-out scenes lead to great character reveals (his journey as a recovering addict, for example) as well as interesting vocabulary choices that almost define a relationship better than one scene could (the way he refers to his wife among close acquaintances compared to strangers). 

 

Those great reveals and choices, unsurprisingly enough, come from Dafoe himself. While the film doesn’t feel like a vanity project, nor written too specifically for him, Dafoe puts so much of himself into Tommaso that it would almost feel wrong not to have him in the role. It fits him way too well, capturing Tommaso’s pain and longing vividly as well as giving him the charisma that would make him such a well-liked person among his peers and students. The film never explains how Nikki and Tommaso got together but, in one scene early in the film, the ember of raw sexual energy burning between them paints a clear enough picture that works perfectly due to both Dafoe and Chiriac. That being said though, Dafoe is a standout for a reason; While the ensemble works well, they don’t hold a candle to the acting Dafoe is doing around them. Regardless of whether or not that’s due to lack of experience, Dafoe is given enough support by the ensemble to make any Dafoe fan happy to see how much he shines. 

 

At the same time though, as much as the narrative’s execution and lead performance keep the viewer intrigued, the film’s pacing does take a toll by the first hour. Like I said earlier, there are a few scenes that go on just a tad too long, leading to scenarios where the viewer hopes this has relevance to the overall film the first two or three times it happens. Unfortunately, it’s frequent enough that repeat viewings of the film will undoubtedly lead to several scenes being skipped because the ideas the scenes are presenting are so straightforward that there’s no need for five minutes when two does the job just fine. It can even be frustrating when the film actually does the long-form approach well, resulting in a film that feels conflicted with its narrative execution overall. As much as I’m never against a Dafoe-centric film pushing two hours, Tommaso definitely feels like it could’ve shaved fifteen to twenty minutes off the runtime with very few issues.

 

In addition, the film’s ending feels a bit rushed in retrospect. It revolves mainly around Tommaso’s strained relationship with his wife, but, in the grand scheme of things, the two seem to get very little time together to build out their history, conflict, and even diverging futures. One of the best scenes in the film is in the first act, but after that, most of their time together is mainly dedicated to yelling, complaining, and butting heads. Chiriac’s Nikki feels like a side character, despite the fact that Tommaso’s connection to both her and their daughter Dee Dee should push them both as major characters, resulting in a dramatic finale that would’ve hit harder if Ferrara gave Nikki more of a personality than “rebellious wife that laughs during awkward situations.” Sure, the ending still works but, looking back, it does feel like a missed opportunity to make Tommaso more impactful than it is. 

 

Overall, Tommaso is a good film that thrives when Ferrara and Dafoe are able to converge in a way that gives the film a natural, personal feeling that keeps viewers just enough in the dark to keep them engaged. Sadly though, its conflicted pacing and lackluster ending results in a final product that doesn’t hold up as well post-viewing. As a fan of Dafoe’s work, he gives a great enough performance that I’d recommend this to anyone who can’t get enough of the actor. While I’m definitely interested in looking into Ferrara’s part work, it’s safe to say that I probably won’t rewatch (or remember much of) Tommaso by the end of the weekend. In the end, I hope their next collaboration Siberia is better because Ferrara and Dafoe seem to work so well that I’d like to see where they can go from here.

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