Willem Dafoe’s face is a true cinematic wonder. Like the great actors of the silent film era, it is extraordinarily expressive, able to convey warmth, humour or menace in equal measure (exactly the reason he was so good at playing Nosferatu actor Max Schreck in Shadow of the Vampire). Gaze into Dafoe’s face long enough and whole experiences begin to reveal themselves. Yet for all his facial lunacy, he still remains an incredibly grounded actor, which is why his ongoing collaboration with Bronx-born enfant terrible Abel Ferrara has been so creatively fulfilling. In Tommaso, the sixth collaboration between the two (their seventh, Siberia, just premiered at Berlin earlier this year), we get plenty of time to study Dafoe’s wearied face, the camera restlessly roving around the actor as he plays a character somewhat indistinguishable from Ferrara himself.
Dafoe plays Tommaso, an American filmmaker living in Italy with his much younger wife and their three-year old daughter. While in pre-production on a fantastical new big-budget film, Tommaso mostly spends his days wandering the streets of his newly-adopted hometown, teaching acting classes, and intermittently meeting with a private language instructor to improve his Italian. He’s also an addict, coming up on his six-year anniversary of being sober and still religiously attending weekly AA meetings where he unloads stories of his formerly drug-fueled, hedonistic filmmaking career.
Tommaso is a film less concerned with traditional narrative arcs, however, instead becoming a trenchant character study of a middle-aged artist grappling with his growing cultural irrelevance and overall place in the world. It has an existentially beautiful vibe reminiscent of the masterworks of peak-period Antonioni while also remaining one of the most personal projects Ferrara has ever helmed. While stopping short of any explicit references, it’s obvious that Tommaso and Ferrara are cut from the same cloth, with the director reminiscing and grappling with his earlier days as a Hollywood wild man in the ‘80s and ‘90s (just YouTube his legendary Conan O’Brien interview for a reminder).
Dafoe is the perfect person to embody this fictionalized version of his friend, especially since he was also very much a part of the high-octane, coke-fuelled Hollywood scene back in the day. He plays Tommaso with the perfect mixture of sympathetic world-weariness and childish petulance, especially in scenes where he annoyingly admonishes his wife for not making lunch for him or freaks out when she wants to take the metro with their daughter instead of a cab. It’s a complex portrayal of a man who’s desperately trying to avoid the fact that he’s become the oldest guy in the room.
Tommaso does fall into some of the tiring tropes of what I like to call the “pervy old man European director syndrome”, particularly in a series of dreamlike sequences where a fully-clothed Dafoe engages in sensual embraces with his fully-nude young female acting students. It’s in moments like these where Ferrara’s age shows more than anything, as it doesn’t quite work like it may have in his head 30 years ago. Still, there’s a lot here to admire and Ferrara proves he has plenty of that electric directorial energy left in him, ending his film on an intriguingly ambiguous note of that trademark Catholic guilt that has always hovered over his work (and that also sneakily calls back to Dafoe’s work in The Last Temptation of Christ).
This is an actor-director collaboration that would do well to continue indefinitely.