Italian-American: Abel Ferrara's Tommaso
Updated: Jan 12
“We don’t have relationships. We take hostages.”
That’s how a striking, anonymous addict describes her ongoing battle to maintain any meaningful human connection in Abel Ferrara’s Tommaso (2019). Easily one of the most naked self-portraits ever committed to screen, Ferrara places himself under the microscope, picking apart what it’s like to be an insecure old man who never left recovery, attempting to reconcile the mistakes he’s made in the past with the positive future he’s built for himself in the present, after putting the crack pipe down and striving to live a sober life. Reuniting with muse Willem Dafoe, the duo deliver another treatise on how you never stop desiring to spark up again that ranks with both artists' very best respective works, let alone collaborations.
It makes sense that Ferrara would spend his twilight years in Italy, continuing to make movies on his own terms, just like he did as a rebellious urchin, residing in New York during the middle of its most debauched, violent years under former Mayor Ed Koch, minting exploitation masterpieces (such as the quintessential rape/revenge howl of anguish, [Ms. 45 (1981]). After all, Abel began his cinematic career as a student at England’s Alvescot College, hustling the BBC to shoot his first short using their equipment while counting future chairman of NYU’s film program, Brian Winston, as his mentor. The more you read about Abel, the more you realize his life followed an almost cyclical pattern, especially when it came to creating: a Bronx kid born of Napoli blood who sojourned overseas, only to return and then leave yet again after the pool of money for his peculiar brand of confrontational outsider poetry dried up in the States.
Porn begat horror and violent gangster pictures, before evolving into avant-garde documentaries and character studies. The closest analog that comes to mind is David Cronenberg: another intellectual who initially embarked on his filmic journey by shredding human bodies and bursting bladders filled with karo syrup, before jettisoning the faux flesh wounds for deeply felt Jeremy Irons and Viggo Mortensen-fronted melodramas about perverse twin gynecologists and undercover London cops posing as Russian mafia enforcers. Genre was merely a backdoor to the art house; a sanctuary where both auteurs’ fascinations didn’t necessarily change, but rather morphed into their final unclassifiable forms of personal expression.
Like Cronenberg and Mortensen, who combined for three films that qualitatively run the gamut from “near masterpiece” (Eastern Promises ) to near the Canux maestro’s nadir (A Dangerous Method ), Ferrara and Dafoe have now collaborated on six titles (with Siberia  being literally part of Tommaso's text). A partnership that stretches back over two decades to Ferrara’s William Gibson adaptation, New Rose Hotel (1998), Tommaso represents perhaps the ultimate symbiosis a director and performer can achieve, as the inspiration inhabits the skin of the man he motivates, right down to acting alongside Ferrara’s own wife (Cristina Chiriac) and daughter (Anna Ferrara). The level of trust involved in such an act of creative devotion seems immeasurable, as one is literally placing his life, however fictionalized, into the other’s hands.
Beginning over a decade ago with the metatextual documentary Napoli Napoli Napoli (2009), Ferrara explored the country as an ex-pat whose ancestors hailed from the motherland. Far from being the only non-fiction transmission he crafted – his unvarnished NYC examinations Chelsea on the Rocks (2008) and Mulberry Street (2010) are key works in Ferrara’s filmography – Napoli is perhaps the artist’s most formless act of visual force. Like Chelsea, it combines narrative fiction with interviews of women inside the region’s prisons, amalgamating into an exploration of not only a nation, but how the director would interrogate its culture onscreen. Experimentation has always been one of Ferrara’s calling cards, yet with Napoli he seemed to toss the entire medium up into the air, just to see how the pieces would land. “Challenging” doesn’t even begin to describe something this curiously radical.
When it comes to bringing biographical counterparts to life, Ferrara has often referred to films like Welcome to New York (2014) and Pasolini (2015) as "documentaries about watching actors trying to act like people". No doubt, the level of difficulty in Gérard Depardieu’s depiction of powerful rapist Dominique Strauss-Kahn (re-named “Deveraux” in Welcome for obvious legal purposes) or Dafoe’s supernatural interpretation of the legendary slain filmmaker are quite high, however the audience never quite feels like we’re witnessing a transformation. As consummate professionals, these performers have already prepared for cameras to roll, while Ferrara and his lens become active observers, ensuring none of the actors’ common traits or gestures peek out from beneath their newly acquired veneers.
Tommaso is somewhat different, achieving an almost meditative vibe during its opening ten minutes. Anyone familiar with Ferrara’s rough, profanity-laced demeanor will possibly be taken aback by Willem’s gentle reinvention. As he serenades his Italo linguistics teacher with a surprise birthday cake, shops for produce, and stops for a quick espresso, we tag along, trying to get a sense of how Dafoe is adopting the director’s history and twisting it ever so slightly to fit the titular fictional stand-in.
By the time he arrives home (to Ferrara’s real life flat), cooks with his wife, Nikki (Chiriac), and dances with their tiny daughter, DeeDee, all the while stirring pasta and making notes on his latest script, we’re practically waiting for the other domestic shoe to drop. When Tommaso and Nikki’s late-night rendezvous is interrupted by the crying tot, it’s clear by the disappointment on the man’s face that he might be getting frustrated with domesticity, despite clearly being in love with a beauty half his age. Tommaso’s a caged tiger, and no matter how wondrous his life may superficially appear, those old appetites still need to be fed red meat.
There’s a live-wire electricity to the way Tommaso is crafted, immersing us in a modern Rome not too unlike how Rossellini captured the metropolis following World War II with Open City (1945). Regular Herzog cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger (who, somewhat ironically, lensed Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans ) presents the artist’s life via long, zig-zagging follows, drifting fly on the wall voyeurism, and softly leering close ups. Much how Ferrara’s early ‘80s NYC grime pictures stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the output of fellow scum peddler Bill Lustig (whose Maniac  feels organically grown in a Manhattan gutter rather than photographed), Tommaso doubles as a document of a very specific time and place.
Watching Tommasso first during quarantine, knowing that Abel witnessed the COVID-19 epidemic from the Italian trenches, his movie seems downright essential for getting us into the hustle and bustle of the city’s bars, coffee shops, and markets before it became ground zero for some of the worst abuse the novel virus dished out: a travelogue predating apocalypse now. When combined with his clandestinely produced Zeroes and Ones (2021), a New Rose Hotel companion piece sees Ethan Hawke prowl a decimated Rome for any signs of human life, it's one of the more stark "before and after" comparison points in cinematic history. Again, fact and fiction are united into one nigh insperable truth, the line between documentary and narrative blurred until it doesn't even exist.
Similarly, Dafoe's Tommasso isn't the first totem Ferrara's created for himself. At the peak of his early '90s critical success, the writer/director re-teamed with his Bad Lieutenant (1992) star, Harvey Keitel, for Dangerous Game (a/k/a Snake Eyes ). A Godardian character study in which Keitel's reckless director, Eddie Israel, flees "straight life" (a wife and child) to helm another art house melodrama, Game practically feels like a dry run for Tommaso in hindsight (the glib elevator pitch would be "Ferrara's Contempt"). By the time Israel is engaging in an affair with his leading lady (played by none other than pop megastar, Madonna), it's pretty indisputable Ferrara is wrestling with his own array of appetites, condemning his insatiable need to smoke, fight, and fuck.
Junkies and obsessive creators have dominated Ferrara’s work since Driller Killer (1979), right down to the auteur making an arty black and white vampire flick literally titled The Addiction (1995). So has bad behavior on the director’s part during filming, up to and including allegedly being so high on crack he attempted to lift Vincent Gallo’s wallet while making The Funeral (1996). Yet Tommaso again proves that Abel’s at least honest about the irrepressible impulses that consume him. He’s commented on his habits before – rather directly via his vastly undervalued The Blackout (1997) – but mostly populates his pictures with bullish thugs whose vices end up undoing them. From Harvey Keitel’s nameless power trip with a badge in Bad Lieutenant (1992), bawling over blunt force Catholic guilt with his dick out, to Depardieu’s aforementioned “sex equals power” politician, nobody is free from sin, because neither is Ferrara. After all, they’re only human.
The meetings Tommaso attends as part of achieving six years of sobriety become a loose framing device for us to peer into what gets this guy off (not to mention scares him) beyond booze or a pipe. As do the fantastical sequences that the filmmaker’s mind drifts off to, imagining carnal pleasures with a gorgeous barista, as well as the horrors of his child potentially walking into traffic or his wife cheating on him with a younger man. Tommaso is undoubtedly the product of an iconoclast quickly realizing that he has more sunsets behind him than in front of him, and Ferrara’s reckoning with the fact that he’s probably going to leave DeeDee an orphan and Nikki free to find herself a virile stud who can pleasure her better and more frequently after the codger’s crack damaged ticker finally gives out. Try as he may, these insecurities manifest themselves in explosive arguments with his partner, who isn’t so sure her man isn’t hiding a few secrets of his own.
If you’re wondering: is any of this anxiously uncomfortable? It is – especially the borderline predatory way Tommaso appears as if he’s trying force some of these fantasies into being his reality. Whether its lingering too long after walking a fellow addict home from a meeting, or carrying on an affair with one of his far-too-young acting students, Tommaso is auto-fiction about a guy barely in control of himself, and possibly on the verge of destroying it all, despite years of experience teaching him otherwise**. Yet it’s also wildly relatable for anyone who thinks they’re going to fuck up the best parts of their relatively short life at any moment. Because being an addict means you’ve probably been there/done that before, and are definitely sure you don’t ever want to go back to hurting people again. Still, no amount of domestic bliss will ever stop a junkie from craving one last hit off that pipe, knowing nothing but detrimental chaos comes along with it. Therein lies the drama.
*Joe Lynch and Adam Green’s Movie Crypt interview is a must for Ferrara freaks, as he Skyped with the hosts from Italy during the pandemic.
**It’s also worth noting that Ferrara’s the guy who cast himself as one of the rapists in Ms. 45, practically admitting he’s just as capable of preying on women as any other villainous man.
Jacob Knight is the co-founder/host/editor of Secret Handshake.