Abel Ferrara’s cinema is a study of characters struggling to escape the rot of themselves and society, people whose tendency toward violence is a manifestation of a violent culture and whose attempts to extricate themselves from their worst traits tend to be possible only with the oblivion of the flesh. Tommaso, at first blush, seems to run counter to the director’s canon of messy, grimy angst. It begins with the toll of a cathedral bell as Tomasso (Willem Dafoe) walks through a Roman courtyard on his way to an Italian lesson, yet that ominous gong is immediately and literally lightened by a camera tilt that gazes at the bright sky. That sunny tone reflects Tommaso’s affable tone with his Italian tutor, and later back home with his wife, Nikki (Cristina Chiriac), and their toddler daughter, Deedee (Anna Ferrara). A filmmaker who moved to Rome to get away from the stresses of his job, Tommaso seems truly carefree in contrast to the average Ferrara protagonist, nearly all of whom exude instability from the first glimpse.

Slowly, however, things turn strange. At home, the domestic bliss of Tommaso cooking for his family gives way to a mild argument as the couple lounges on their couch after the baby is put to bed. The room, lit by a lamp whose metallic shade casts cobwebs of shadow over the room, adds an unsettling note to Nikki’s calm but pointed criticism of how much he lets his focus on his work overtake attention to his family. The two make up, however, and even begin to have sex, which Ferrara films in an unbroken take that captures all the awkward maneuvering and struggling to undress that, in its avoidance of usual methods of rapid cutting and close-ups, captures the genuine eroticism of the clumsier steps of sex. Just as the pair finally settle into a rhythm, however, Deedee awakes and starts to cry from her bedroom, and the camera amusingly pulls back as Nikki pulls out to attend to the child, leaving a visibly frustrated Tommaso.

The hints of domestic unrest, seen here in the quotidian annoyances of cohabitation and child-rearing, start to manifest in strange ways. Tommaso, revealed to be a recovering addict, is always drinking from bottles that may not contain alcohol but which he drinks with the muscle memory of a man who subconsciously defaults to chugging liquid and gripping bottles by the tip of their necks. He occasionally goes to A.A. with other immigrants living in the city, and when he heads down into a basement for meetings it looks as if he’s descended into hell, emerging into a room with red walls lit by bluish lights that, complete with spinning fans, make the area look submerged underwater. Tommaso’s confessional memories of squandering his earlier life elucidate some of the unspoken reasons for marrying a much younger woman, though if he seeks to reclaim his lost youth, he also gets mad when his wife does not defer to his “experience.”

Despite working most of his career with microscopic budgets, Ferrara has always managed to make the look of his films reflective of his characters’ internal turmoil, and that’s true here. Working in digital video with frequent Werner Herzog cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger, Ferrara films Tommaso’s intimate strains with images that can be breathtakingly low-resolution for contemporary digital. Faces have a smeared texture that can obscure some of the nuances of expression in the character’ more ambiguous interactions. Movement sometimes has a hyperreal quality that adds to the increasingly dreamlike state in which Tommaso roams through odd scenes seemingly divorced from time and space, whether the all-English addicts meetings or practices with an experimental dance and acting studio. But there are also moments of resplendently composed beauty, with Ferrara making the most of Rome’s architecture for shots rich with evocative silhouettes and careful staging.

Tommaso is an anomaly in Ferrara’s filmmaking in that its character is not the embodiment of his milieu but an outsider struggling to fit into a different place. As such, the scenes in which the narrative becomes muddied could be indicative of journeys into the recesses of Tommaso’s repressed chaos. His mounting discontent with Nikki leads to scenes of other younger women he’s met throughout the film greeting him in the nude, and Ferrara bleeds in the metatextual with a few scenes that see Dafoe somewhat replaying key moments from The Last Temptation of Christ. Indeed, Tommaso himself is a thinly veiled avatar for the director, ranging from the casting of his own wife and child as Tommaso’s own and glimpses of Tommaso working on storyboards and a script for a film that could be Ferrara’s long-gestating, recently completed Siberia.

Yet even with a Fellini namecheck early on and a decidedly 8 ½ feel, the film is no mere account of self-loathing. Nothing is ever easy in Ferrara’s work, and though Tommaso does place its seemingly collected, mature protagonist on a collision course with his own buried rage, there are numerous moments that complicate any simple assessment of the man. This is clearest in a scene where Tommaso confronts a homeless Pakistani immigrant making noise outside his apartment. At first, Tommaso is ready to harm the man, but slowly the interaction de-escalates, the homeless man getting quieter and Tommaso regaining control as they start to bond over the experiences as foreigners. What starts as a vituperative argument ends as a friendly parting of comrades, epitomizing how one never knows what will happen in any of Ferrara’s films.

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