The Art Life: Abel Ferrara’s Tommaso

By Lawrence Garcia

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“When we’re making a movie sometimes I think, ‘Why don’t we just turn the camera around and shoot between wrapping at night and when the morning starts?’ Sometimes you’ve got a better movie there than the one you’re making.” That’s Abel Ferrara in a 2019 interview on Tommaso, his latest feature, and one that might well be considered a fulfillment of that proposition. The film was conceived during the lead-up to the Italian-American director’s forthcoming, years-in-the-making Siberia (“a long odyssey about a long odyssey”), and thus stands as a kind of improvisational in-between project in the tradition of Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express (1994). Shot with documentary-like verve in and around his apartment in Rome with cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger, the film stars Willem Dafoe as Tommaso, an expatriate New York filmmaker living with his wife and child, here played by Ferrara’s real-life partner Cristina Chiriac, a Moldavian actress, and their three-year-old daughter Anna. At bottom, this is a portrait of an artist in repose—he’s seen working on storyboards of Siberia, but mostly just lives in the city, taking walks with his daughter, attending Italian language classes with a private tutor, and participating in weekly A.A. meetings. The director’s comments on his current life in Rome are perhaps worth noting: “Y’know, I live a low-key, boring life. And like I say, thank fuckin’ God.”

Previously, if turned around, Ferrara’s camera would have captured something altogether different. His decades-long abuse of cocaine, heroin, and alcohol is by now well known. (“On Go Go Tales he drank 28 cases [of beer] in one month,” producer Frankie Cee recounts in the 2010 documentary Mulberry St.) These vices informed much of Ferrara’s earlier filmmaking reputation—even in J. Hoberman’s positive Village Voice review of Bad Lieutenant, the director was a “scuzzmeister” who managed to reach “a higher spiritual plane”—and indeed became inseparable from it. For a while, it wasn’t even necessary to turn the camera around: Under the sobriquet “Jimmy Laine,” Ferrara appeared in his first two directorial features, an exploitation porno titled 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy (1976), and the provocatively plotted The Driller Killer (1979), about a struggling artist who eventually goes on a murderous rampage with a power drill. In the nineties, Ferrara made two features more explicitly about filmmaking: the Madonna-vehicle Dangerous Game from 1993 (known outside the U.S. as Snake Eyes), a behind-the-scenes drama that presents a tangled skein of relationships on screen, on set, and in the home (where his wife Nancy Ferrara plays the role of the director’s wife); and 1997’s The Blackout, about a filmmaker who loses his memory after a wild night on Miami Beach. 

Whether or not The Blackout informed the wrenching Miami-set story Tommaso shares during one A.A. meeting, it’s undeniable that Tommaso is invested with the weight of lived experience. Indeed, the film as a whole might be more vital and convincing not for its fidelity to, but for its fragmentation of its real-life sources. In creating the character of Tommaso, Ferrara and Dafoe incorporated sundry elements of their own lives: the former’s Italian language classes, newfound sobriety, and daily breathing exercises; the latter’s experience leading acting workshops (likely sourced from his time with the Wooster Group), his yoga experience, and any number of on-screen improvisations. In this, there’s something of French director Maurice Pialat’s preferred approach to character and psychology, which involved drawing fragments from disparate, possibly contradictory sources, and then alchemizing them into a convincing whole. Implicit is a belief that in so doing, the director might be able to retain something authentic of the real model’s behaviour, while also avoiding the pitfalls of thematic or structural imposition, and resisting the easy psychologizing that a viewer might bring to bear on the movie.  A scene where a fellow A.A. member offers Tommaso a psychoanalytic reading of his wife’s behaviour, based on scattered, incomplete information, is precisely the response that Ferrara is rejecting: for all of the film’s autobiographical elements, it is not to be viewed as autobiography. 

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As a whole, though, Ferrara’s method in Tommaso is not quite so worked out as Pialat’s—it doesn’t extend much past Dafoe’s role, and is less amenable to the film’s unstable mix of reality and fantasy. But what remains, as Kent Jones once put it, is the American director’s “decidedly un-Godardian” faith in actors. While speaking about notions of “distraction” and “double-focus” in delivering emotional truth, Tommaso tells his acting students that for him: “Performing is always between control and abandon.” And so the film’s unpredictable course seems to oscillate—aggressively, jarringly—between these two poles, though always with a particular attention to Dafoe’s centering presence. An unremarkable dinner leads directly into a raucous clip of Ukraine’s Got Talent, which the family dances to in the living room; a lilting, lyrical scene of the three asleep segues into what appears to be a dream sequence (unexplained, and never taken up again) of Dafoe being escorted by armed men beneath a building; a nondescript drive from an A.A. meeting cuts to a becalmed cosmic reverie. All the while, Joe Delia’s score resonates somewhere between hypnotic suggestion and Zen-like repose. By the end, the viewer is made to feel that as in Pasolini—which spans the last day of the Italian director’s life and presents imagined scenes from his unfinished projects—the film might incorporate anything its title character is able to imagine.

That Ferrara is able to do this with fragments of his own life in Tommaso is cause to take note, as it wouldn’t have seemed possible previously. No doubt playing off of the extra-textual knowledge of Dafoe’s famed role in Martin Scrosese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Ferrara seeds the film with any number of enticements to lust and rage and sin: a naked woman serving Tommaso coffee at an espresso bar, a scene of infidelity that he spies (or imagines) while taking his child to a park, and a tryst with an acting student in her car. The natural response, given Ferrara’s Catholic upbringing (though he converted to Buddhism around the time he got sober), would be to take these scenes as abject confessions. But the fact that they occupy different degrees of “reality” in their presentation is again indicative of Ferrara’s method, which frequently resists such abstraction. The fair question of how one is meant to take Tommaso, though, still remains. Although bound by Dafoe’s presence, it’s a film that seems to flout conventional notions of coherence, its arresting movements governed by discontinuity, irruption, and surprise.

Perhaps the film’s penultimate scene, inspired by Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, provides a useful framework. (Reaffirming the film’s home-movie status, Ferrara offers a video of his daughter dancing to “Tu Vuò Fà L’Americano” at the very end.) Following a harrowing marital spat and an unexpectedly violent turn, Tommaso and another man are shown crucified just outside of Rome’s main train station. The camera glides over the bewildered spectators and tourists, gets closer to capture a whole range of reaction shots, then gradually moves into a close-up of Dafoe’s furrowed gaze. The actor has himself described this scene as a kind of “performance art piece,” which is appropriate, given the way it stages the scene and films the numerous bystanders. Extended to Tommaso in its entirety, the term would of course be imprecise, but it doesn’t seem so far off to consider the film in this way. Palpable throughout its volatile movements is a sense of an artist’s existence as a state of constant, restless exchange with his surroundings. Its unique vigour and verve comes from the fact that, in scene after scene, the city and its inhabitants are presented not as mere fodder for an artist’s ruminations, but as active participants in it. Put another way, Tommaso practically embodies a view of creative life as a kind of perpetual performance. And for Ferrara, after all, performance might be the most real thing there is.

Tommaso opens in our virtual cinema on Friday, June 12.

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