For personal reasons, and despite the pressures of popular, fashionable attitudes, filmmaker Abel Ferrara and his frequent collaborator, actor Willem Dafoe, made their new project Tommaso in defiance of political correctness. It’s a series of sequences that reveal the emotional impressions of an American male artist when he relocates to Italy.
“You live in Rome, so you have courage,” says Tommaso’s gregarious Italian-language tutor, correcting his humility with a sexy smile. Dafoe, famous for his rugged features and sympathetic spirit, registers a slight look of surprise at hearing a character trait that is not normally ascribed to men this millennium.
Ferrara and Dafoe juxtapose that humility and courage as Tommaso visits the local markets and restaurants; takes in life on the streets; engages students in the acting classes he teaches; and confesses at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. We behold the gracious family life in a top-floor apartment where Tommaso’s wife, an immigrant with Melania cheekbones and a toddler daughter he has adopted, completes the miraculous privileged bourgeois-artist lifestyle he has difficulty accepting.
An overhead perspective of Tommaso crossing a street in the middle of traffic is filled out with street noises that immediately reminded me of a track on Morrissey’s Ringleader of the Tormentors (an album featuring live ambient recording in Rome). This coincidence reveals the nature of Ferrara and Dafoe’s semi-confessional conceit; their movie is about self-awareness — the personal embarrassment over traditional ideas of sex and behavior and identity that recent cultural movements have unfairly and dishonestly condemned.
Gadfly Morrissey again comes to mind for his recent song “The Secret of Music,” in which, as with Ferrara and Dafoe, discrete elements of art and creativity symbolize unsettled private feelings and the need to make sense of them. It’s an ingenious reconstruction of the art-making process. “I am out of tune,” Morrissey sings, and that realization — in the age of “toxic masculinity” and its attendant dehumanization — is what Tommaso and Dafoe’s mercurial characterization press home.
Like “The Secret of Music,” this film is subtle and insinuating. Images of Tommaso surrounded by women with plump, supple rumps, or therapy sessions where his own candor is surpassed by others’ (“I don’t have relationships, I take hostages” a woman boasts), derive from the innermost declarations by Fellini, Antonioni, and Pasolini — Ferrara and Dafoe’s role models. Their previous collaboration on the impressionistic biopic Pasolini surely inspired Tommaso.
Ferrara and Dafoe get at the dilemma of modern masculinity. In this film, they are the only contemporary American heterosexual filmmakers to deal with manhood honestly, or as Norman Mailer once described his brethren: “They are both themselves and the mirror of their culture as it reacts upon them . . . themselves and the negative truth of themselves.” Acting teacher Tommaso tells his students, “For me performing is all about control and abandon. When we do things and we forget about ourselves. Doing things in a pure way, that’s when we get close to experiencing, for me, the beauty of life.” That’s both Morrissey’s yearning and the yoke of masculinity that Mailer wore.
Yet Tommaso is not a slog through guilty self-hatred. Tommaso’s marital jealousy (sparked by the betrayal he infers when his wife makes her own lunch) exposes reasonable insecurity. More than a diaristic confession, it is an effort toward integrity and self-acceptance.
Ferrara intercuts images from the perverse media world — including a grizzly-bear attack, a Russia’s Got Talent TV clip, and a scene of Dafoe (Scorsese’s Christ in The Last Temptation of Christ) posing on a crucifix at an airport art installation. Exploring a male artist’s temptations — anger, lust, machismo, friendliness, fraternity — makes this a psychodrama in the guise of realism. The scene where Dafoe claps to bring a group of African immigrants to order (“Take this. It’s all I have.”) is like the peace-pipe scene in old liberal Westerns; it may be the best satire of George Floyd liberal madness we’ll ever see.
It is only when Tommaso concludes that one grasps the thoroughness of Ferrara and Dafoe’s venture. The final film-clip homage perfectly expresses Ferrara’s love for his personal, cultural, and national heritage that his generation will easily recognize. Others will require sympathy or else a delightful appreciation of movie history.
Tommaso is streaming now.