Tommaso isn’t the latest Paolo Sorrentino film. But for the first hour, Abel Ferrara lulls you into thinking he’s adopted that Italian filmmaker’s watchfulness and ease of movement. The camera ambles through the same Roman streets that Sorrentino’s solitary writer does in his Oscar-winning film The Great Beauty (2013). The light, especially at night, is liquid and full of hidden depths that the main character Tommaso (Willem Dafoe) deliberately avoids or passes by without noticing. Ferrara omits the history of the place by concentrating on the homely residential architecture, neighborhood shops and parks. He departs from Sorrentino — and their cinematic forebear Federico Fellini — as he begins to follow Tommaso on a humdrum daily routine. The Trevi Fountain, along with other notable landmarks like Anita Ekberg, are nowhere in sight.
The director introduces Tommaso in this contemporary European setting as he makes his way to an Italian language class. He conjugates irregular verbs, then stops by the grocer’s before heading home to his Moldavian girlfriend, Nikki (Cristina Chiriac), and their daughter, Deedee (Anna Ferrara). Though nothing is stated or confirmed in the script, they appear to have an open relationship. Their conversations are so banal it’s hard to imagine they have anything in common besides caring for Deedee.
When they’re in the same room, Tommaso and Nikki don’t behave like a believable couple. Part of the problem stems from the language barrier. As Dafoe slowly builds up steam in character, Chiriac, this film’s great beauty, takes an infinitely more casual approach to being filmed. Nikki’s character is a sketch, both underwritten and underacted.
Ferrara, who also wrote the script, is presenting a sardonic take on autobiographies made by auteurs. This is his response to The Great Beauty and Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963), movies meant to document the male creative process and the women in their lives. Tommaso, too, is a filmmaker. He teaches an acting class where he flirts with his pretty students and reveals the mysteries of their profession. They must find a balance between abandonment and control. But balance doesn’t seem to be his strong point. At home in his elegant, spacious flat, he works on a storyboard that’s shot in tremulous close-ups. Dafoe intensifies and lowers his voice while he reads the cues to his script in progress. For those few moments, the audience gets a glimpse inside of Tommaso’s troubled mind.
What we see tells us that this charming Roman daydream is not what it seems. Tommaso watches disturbing videos of bears attacking people so he can include that sense of terror in his film. Why does he want to tell this particular story? Ferrara provides no information about his past. Is he a successful director? Famous? He’s wealthy enough to live comfortably, supporting a wife and child, without either of them having to hold down a 9-5 job. This freedom unleashes his imagination and contributes to his unraveling.
Sorrentino’s visions of a glittering, rotting demimonde evoke Fellini’s decadence and his character’s ribald, sensual fantasies. Ferrara’s presentation of an artist’s breakdown though is devoid of bodily pleasures and rife with paranoia. Tommaso sees Nikki making out with a man in public. Or thinks he does. The woman’s hair looks the same as Nikki’s but the director doesn’t show her face. Visibly in turmoil about what he witnessed, Tommaso never talks about it. When he does finally get angry with her, it’s because she makes dinner for herself without asking him if he’s hungry. His tantrum feels out of proportion to the faux pas, even if it is a selfish move on Nikki’s part.
At this point, we’ve got both feet planted back in Ferrara-land. That we’re in Rome no longer matters. Violence is the territory that this director explores with a mix of cynicism and pleasure. In this case, the violence is emotional and not actualized. Having worked together on several previous films, Dafoe is at ease in this milieu. As Tommaso, the corners of his mouth arch down with increasing frequency. It’s the actor’s way of telling us that despair and confusion are starting to inhabit his soul by way of his facial tissue.
But the primary failure here, along with the implausible central relationship, is that the depiction of Tommaso’s fragile psychological state, and his descent into madness, isn’t new or improved. The list of white male artists going mad on screen is long and topped by films like David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch and the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink. With Tommaso, Ferrara may have finally closed the door on this genre. In the last scene, he pays homage to one of Dafoe’s famous roles from another director’s movie. Instead of carefully leading us out of the domestic drama and the mode of realism he had established for Tommaso, Ferrara punks the audience with overwrought symbolism. After a spectral viewing party, Fellini’s ghost is either laughing in his Catholic gravesite or waving a handful of script notes above ground to get Ferrara’s attention.