Film review: Dafoe takes us inside the private life of director Ferrara in ‘Tommaso’


Bad-boy director and noted addict Abel Ferrara has tried to stay sober for the past few years, puttering around in his apartment in Rome while making a few documentaries. His last narrative feature was 2014’s “Pasolini,” focusing on the murdered Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini, with Willem Dafoe in the title role.

So when Ferrara finally made another narrative feature, “Tommaso,” it was considered to be an event for world cinema, and the Cannes Film Festival made it a part of its 2019 official selection. It, too, stars Dafoe in the title role. And it’s a must-see for anyone who’s interested in Ferrara, who is probably best known for the highly controversial 1992 noir “Bad Lieutenant.”

Why a must-see, you might ask? Mainly because it’s the most autobiographical film Ferrara has ever made. And if you’re wondering why that can be stated as fact, consider this: The movie takes place in Ferrara’s apartment. Besides Dafoe, the movie has two other main characters: Tommaso’s wife Nikki, played by Cristina Chiriac, and the child Deedee, played by Anna Ferrara. Chiriac is Ferrara’s much-younger wife, and Anna Ferrara is the daughter of Chiriac and Ferrara.

The character of Tommaso is a drug addict who has been sober for the past few years, just as Ferrara has been. Tommaso is also a screenwriter and director, who is working on a film set in the frozen north. Ferrara’s next film is set for release later this year, if all goes as planned. Its title? “Siberia.”

Tommaso is struggling to stay sober, and he tries hard. Besides working on his movies, he takes his daughter for walks in the park, takes Italian-language lessons, attends AA meetings, runs an acting workshop, goes on shopping errands, washes dishes and tries to be the model of domesticity for a wife who is increasingly wrapped up in taking care of the child. When Tommaso and Nikki finally start having an intimate moment, the child cries from the bedroom, and the intimacy is cut short. And when Tommaso makes other advances toward Nikki, she tends to back away.

Tommaso, meanwhile, may or may not be having relationships with other women. It’s hard to tell in some instances, such as when Tommaso stops in a deserted cafe for a coffee and his order is delivered by a woman in the nude. Is it real, or are we getting a glimpse into an active imagination?

The AA meetings make up a lot of the movie, and that’s where Tommaso, and perhaps Ferrara, are trying to deal with making his family relationship work. One of the fellow AA members wryly notes that addicts don’t have relationships, they take hostages.

Ferrara seems to be not only working on his current life in “Tommaso,” but also dealing with his past. That’s probably necessary to stay sober, but it doesn’t necessarily make for compelling cinema. But if anybody can make “Tommaso” compelling, it’s Dafoe, who dives into the role with abandon.

He’s one of the world’s great actors, and he’s a wonder to watch.

“Tommaso” is streaming online, starting June 5, at the Violet Crown website, with part of the proceeds going to support the theater that’s closed because of the pandemic: On June 12, it will also begin streaming at the Austin Film Society website,

Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy is a former movies editor for The Dallas Morning News and Austin American-Statesman.

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