Last week’s column focused in part on the decades-long working relationship between director Istvan Szabo and actor Klaus Maria Brandauer, which began in 1981 and continues to the present day. This week brings us another artistic twosome who just can’t quit each other: Abel Ferrara and Willem Dafoe, last seen together in Big Screen Berkeley in 2019.
Writer-director Ferrara and actor Dafoe have made a remarkable seven films together since 1998, and their most recent effort, Tommaso, is now available for streaming via the Virtual Roxie Theater. And they’re not done yet: IMDb indicates their next film, Siberia, will be opening worldwide in July.
Tommaso (Dafoe) is an expatriate American filmmaker living with his wife and young daughter in Rome, where he’s writing a new screenplay. Plagued by memories of the poor choices he made as a young man, Tommaso spends his evenings attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings, where he spills his guts about past dalliances with cocaine and heroin.
While his efforts to keep those old vices under control are fairly successful, one thing he can’t control is his libido. Though his family life seems to be a happy one – at times almost idyllic, and thoroughly ordinary – Tommaso spends many of his off hours canoodling with aspiring young actresses and the Moldavian waitress who serves him coffee every day at a local café.
While he might not be much of a feminist, Tommaso nonetheless is a devoted partner and doting father who loves taking his child to the park and enjoying family night in front of the TV watching throat-singing on (I kid you not) “Ukraine Got Talent.” Yes, it’s really spelled that way: I checked the final credit crawl.
Almost two hours in length, Tommaso is probably the most polite and gentle Ferrara movie yet. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t include some its director’s signature flourishes: in addition to the aforementioned drug reminiscences and several sex scenes, there’s a jarring outbreak of violence at the end of the film involving, rather strangely, a standard lamp. The fact this violence is so jarring, however, confirms Tommaso‘s unique place in the Ferrara canon.
There’s also a memorable scene echoing Dafoe’s unforgettable performance in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, providing a reminder that the actor has barely aged since 1988: a little more wrinkled perhaps, Dafoe sports the same mane of dirty blonde hair and lean frame he’s had for over 30 years. Perhaps he always looked older than his years – or perhaps he has a self-portrait locked away in a closet somewhere.
I don’t know much about either Ferrara or Dafoe’s past indiscretions, but the scenes of Tommaso opening his heart to his fellow addicts largely seem improvised and certainly bear the ring of authenticity. Whether or not this is a semi-autobiographical confessional, however, Ferrara has dispensed with the artifice of previous efforts from 1979’s The Driller Killer to 1990’s King of New York (starring the director’s previous muse, Christopher Walken) and beyond. Withal, this is the Abel Ferrara movie for people who don’t like Abel Ferrara movies.