His work now veering into autobiographical with a tinge of twisted imagery, Abel Ferrara wishes to use the camera to recreate the doubts of a man nearing the end. Tommaso does that well. It replicates, with a keen realism, the life of Ferrara. Frequent Ferrara collaborator, Willem Dafoe, stars as Tommaso, an extension of the acclaimed director. Alongside Ferrara’s real-life wife and daughter, there is no way of circumventing the style and message which this director takes. He is so focused on detailing his debilitating style of work but uses Dafoe as a host to articulate his feelings, meanings and thoughts. There are few better hosts than Dafoe.
Here, Dafoe excels with that energetic quality he always brings to leading roles. Handy it may be that he and Ferrara know one another so well, he channels the frustrations of an artist with confidence and a tinge of experience to him. There can be no doubt, most artists have felt the fear and anger of sacrificing their creativity at one point in their career, and Dafoe brings that to his role in Tommaso. A man on the edge, waiting for his next project to take flight. Those moments of waiting in isolation, even when surrounded by loved ones, is captured with brutal clarity. If Ferrara set out to understand and explain the anxiety he feels between projects, then he does so with a crisp understanding of how he must infer this information to an audience.
Objects or people that represent the agonised woes of the mind, Tomasso has more than a handful of strong themes and messages. It is explained and shown through a variety of characters, but most are highlighted better by the reaction Dafoe offers. His rage, love and all those pesky feelings in-between are shown with clarity and suggest the mentality of not just Ferrara, but Dafoe too. Although somewhat biographical for the acclaimed director, it feels like quite a release for Dafoe too, who unleashes a phenomenal performance, charged by his own strain and struggle, but also the sympathy he feels for a friend who has suffered for just as long, with arguably less success. Maybe that is why he adapts Ferrara to the screen so well, or “Tomasso” as he is named here. Same difference, they’re all in danger of sliding away to their own pent-up frustrations.
Ferrara has moved away from controversial thrillers and cult darlings to a more refined, anguished state of self-reflection. It is always a worry when an artist looks back on the life they led, and Ferrara realises that throughout Tommaso. Artists have always looked to the films they craft for a cathartic release. 8 ½ set a trend for directors laying out their emotions and thoughts for the audience to pick at. Where Fellini succeeded in spinning an emotively provocative tale, questioning the role of the director in the real world, Tomasso does much the same. Ferrara believes himself to be in a constant phase of production, frustration and animosity, not just with the strangers passing him in the street but those he is intimate and close to.