Abel Ferrara has always been an interesting amalgamation of sources. Back during film school at NYU in the mid 90s, Ferrara and Nick Gomez were the bad boys on cinema. I remember crossing paths with him and his actors various times at film school, with the TV station, at the Washington Square News covering a film or on the streets of the Lower East Side. “The Addiction” with Lili Taylor shot on NYU’s campus. Some of us at film school went out to set when a scene from “The Funeral” was shot in Brooklyn with Chris Walken. A van was set on fire to film while we drank Goldschlager watching filmmaking happen from afar as Manhattan loomed in the distance. Ferrara was New York grunge guerrilla film-making. Like Darren Aronofksy who was just coming up with “Pi”, Ferrara had a view of the world but also lived the life to point. At a certain point though, it became completely enveloped in drugs. Some people can’t emerge from that. For some, it creates a tunnel of creativity. Dennis Hopper had that ability. It is just a matter of living through it. Ferrara quieted down for a couple years and his story sort of fell off the radar. That is why seeing it re-ermege in a way in a new series of films starting with “Tommaso” starring recent collaborator Willem Dafoe is an interesting one.
This is effective since both of them now live in Italy married to Italian women younger than them. it is an interesting progression that truly reflects in the film which very autobiographical in certain ways and yet a reflection of themes that have always fascinated Ferrara. He was always King of the long takes with religious imagery. Many times they would be hard to watch and take on a grotesque form of imagery that simply was being extreme for that sake. Ferrara’s films were always gritty as if you were there in the alley with him, low budget, and yet once in a while (there is a scene in this movie) where he uses religious music and a gliding camera to almost highlight performance art. And the one shot here is inherent and specific to Dafoe’s filmic career. You can tell it is real people watching when he films. it is about blurring that line between reality and fiction. This is where the story lies as well.
Willem plays a version of Ferrara with a young wife and a young daughter in Rome. The irony is that the wife and daughter are played by Abel’s actual wife Christine and their daughter Anna plus it is shot in their apartment for the most part. It shows the psychosis of life, temptation and desire with tinges of jealousy. It hits remarkably close and yet separate. There are the tendencies and yet his wife would have read the script. Willem plays introspective but yet loses it at times before compassion returns and then flares up again. There is a bipolar tendency but you can see the destructiveness. Dafoe sees this in Ferrara’s work and how he can connect.
Even at one point, Dafoe is practicing a specific kind of yoga which he does in real life and yet right after the Buddhism which is internal and inherent to Ferrara currently creeps in on it. It is fascinating in many ways but also requires attention. The end is thematic overall and perhaps expected and yet the epilogue in terms of its realness shows the director in a different place. The reflection also in placing stories of his next film within this film is brilliant considering Dafoe is in that film as well (“Siberia”). “Tommaso” is an interesting examination of a director in a different world. It is like Godard in reverse but one which is now his home. It is a fascinating if not maddening diatribe at times examining the normality of life and how your brain and lifestyle can adjust.
By Tim Wassberg