starring Willem Dafoe, Cristina Chiriac, Anna Ferrara, Maricla Amoriello
written and directed by Abel Ferrara
by Walter Chaw There's something about the late careers of musicians that has, in the middle of all this static Sturm und Drang, moved me in ways I don't know that anything's ever quite moved me before. The new Bryan Ferry, Bruce Springsteen, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Marianne Faithful... So much longing and wistfulness. What's that quote by who's that poet who said something along the lines of how the sum of pain, loss, and time is wisdom? I feel more mortal now than I've felt since I was a suicidal teen--and even then, I believed my tragic surcease of sorrow would feed a grand, romantic storyline. Now that the world has enacted its apocalypse, I don't believe my death would be much more than a bump, a tickle, the noise a bird makes when you hit it with your fender. You don't even slow down if you notice it, but you won't notice it. Even grief, I've found, for all its profundity, is only a caesura in a toneless cacophony. We rumble forward, heedless, encumbered, until the weight of it all crushes us and our decaying bodies are allowed to come to rest at last. That's all. That's all there is.
The recent careers of veteran filmmakers are affecting me, too: quiet, meditative, almost anti-narrative works of almost suffocating introspection from the likes of Martin Scorsese, Terrence Malick, Paul Schrader, and Agnes Varda with her final film. Joining their ranks is Abel Ferrara with Tommaso, in which humanism is expressed at its most literal point: the individual as the centre of the universe, but the universe is ever in the process of collapsing. Ferrara's best work has always been about addiction, the mania of a high and the mania of coming down from a high and the mania of searching for the next one. Tommaso is his The Last Temptation of Christ starring the actor Scorsese cast as Jesus, Willem Dafoe, a staple of Ferrara's stock company. In Tommaso, Dafoe plays the title screenwriter, an addict in recovery living in Rome with his young wife Nikki (Cristina Chiriac) and their young daughter DeeDee (Anna Ferrara). His days are spent with an Italian tutor, in cafes, in front of his laptop working through a script for a romance sprinkled through with bits of magical realism, surrealism, even elements of science-fiction and horror. All genres in which Ferrara has dabbled; were we to spend too much time drawing parallels, Tommaso would become unbearable and solipsistic. It's troubled water to compare oneself to Christ.
But there's a fascination in comparing recovery from addiction and its daily tortures to Christ's journey to Cavalry. Having previously equated addiction in his films with vampirism, alien possession, avarice, violence, and sex, always sex, Ferrara pulls the threads of his personal arc together in Tommaso. There are truths so terrible I scream sometimes and shake my head to stop thinking them. The miracle of Tommaso is that it's all of those screams I've bottled in my shame, played back across the face and through the voice of one of the most courageous, naked actors of all time. There's a scene very late in the film where Tommaso, in a fantasy sequence, pulls his own heart out of his chest and offers it to a circle of addicts gathered around a fire. "Take it, it's all I have." It's an obvious reference to Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, of course, but I was more directly reminded of a line from Tennessee Williams's Camino Real: "My heart is gold! What will you give me for it?" That's the lament of the broken, isn't it? The desperate plea for someone to pierce the ugliness of what is outside to mine the gold we hope is inside. You have to find it, see, because I can't find it for myself.
Tommaso is an extraordinary work of both extreme arrogance and excessive humility--the deconstruction of a selfish man, a narcissist perhaps, beset by demons of self-loathing and too much time spent in furious introspection. Nikki screams at Tommaso to look at himself because he looks "like a crazy person," and we realize that he does, just as we recognize that we do, too, when we let the demon out for a second to express its pain. I had a terrible fight with my wife once early in our marriage where I shouted at her that I wished she loved me. She stopped immediately and said, "Don't you know how much I do?" I didn't. Twenty-some years later, I'm finally starting to trust it. I'm broken. She was patient with me. She didn't have to be, but she was. I'm scared to be vulnerable. If you take my heart, I'll die. I deserve to die for the horror I house inside me. Tommaso's polarity is the unbearable profundity of mental illness expressed as film art. It's the finest adaptation of a Richard Brautigan novel that is not an adaptation of a Richard Brautigan novel. In the end, Tommaso reaches a sort of transcendent, tormented calm, and Ferrara has Dafoe peer through the fourth wall right into the soul of me. All of his long walks in Tommaso are a pilgrimage to this moment where, before everyone, he prostrates himself for public scorn and judgment. And whatever his sins, real or imagined, here he is: derelict, humiliated, crucified on a cross he has built over a mismanaged lifetime. I love Tommaso for confessing the things I can't. It's special.