Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 2, 2020


Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 4:57 pm

Opening as virtual cinema on June 5th, “Tommaso” is the greatest film by an American director I have seen since “First Reformed” in 2017. Like Paul Schrader, the director of “First Reformed”, the 68-year old Abel Ferrara, who is 5 years younger than Schrader, is a relatively obscure filmmaker with a long and controversial past. Interviewer Vittorio Carli asked Ferrara if religion a big influence on your work. He replied, “Well I was brought up Roman Catholic and I’m sure it did.” Schrader also comes from a religious background—Calvinist—but was deeper into it than Ferrara. Even though both left religion behind long ago, they make films where religious questions come deeply into play.

In “First Reformed”, the main character—a priest played by Ethan Hawke—is about to carry out a suicide bombing against corporate polluters. “Tommaso” is devoid of social issues but it ends with the lead character Tommaso, an obvious stand-in for Ferrara himself, being crucified on a busy Rome street. That Tommaso is played by Willem Dafoe, who also played Jesus Christ in “The Last Temptation of Christ”, a Scorsese film that Schrader wrote, will not be lost on most cineastes.

Essentially, “Tommaso” is Abel Ferrara’s take on Federico Fellini’s “8 ½”, a film about a famous director who is suffering from a loss of inspiration as well as marital difficulties. Like Fellini’s character, Tommaso is a tormented soul. Just four years younger than Ferrara, Dafoe was ideally cast as the Ferrara-like main character. That being said, he was also great playing Vincent Van Gogh only two years ago, even though Van Gogh was 37 years old. Dafoe is so great at becoming his characters that you don’t pay much attention to his wrinkles.

Despite the Italian first name, Tommaso is an American who has emigrated to Rome, the backdrop for the film. In an early scene, we see him in an Italian lesson that will help him adjust to his new home. Ferrara also moved to Rome after September 11, 2001 both to get away from the madness, plus to get better access to funding. Unlike Scorsese, a fellow Italian-American obsessed with religious questions, Ferrara never hit it big. His specialty was making extremely violent and sexually explicit independent films that might have satisfied his own aesthetic yearnings but not the Hollywood studios.

Tommaso is married to Nikki, a woman 35 years younger. They have a 3-year old daughter. Mother and daughter are played by Ferrara’s wife Cristina Chiriac and his real-life daughter Anna Ferrara. The film was also made in the couple’s apartment.

Whether or not they are going through the same difficulties as the characters they play cannot be determined but my guess is that such an extreme difference in age leads to the conflicts depicted in the film. Tommaso is far more needy than his young wife who feels dominated by the older and more professionally fulfilled director. Nikki misses her freedom and does not see eating dinner together as a litmus test for a good marriage. More worrisome is the fact that the daughter sleeps in the same bed as the parents and that they have not had sex in months.

Tommaso’s life is structured around a series of routines that define him as a human being. He attends alcoholics anonymous meetings. He leads a group of young men and women in acting exercises that often involve deep breathing and attempts to bring buried memories to the surface. Oddly enough, they evoke Tommaso’s yoga exercises to mind. Seeing the 64-year old actor standing on his head is worth the price of the rental.

A lot else is drawn from the quotidian existence of living in any major city. In one of the most powerful moments of the film, Tommaso and Nikki are disturbed by the drunken babbling of a man down the street from that prevents them and their daughter from going to sleep. Even when Tommaso yells out the window for him to cut it out or else get a punch in the mouth, the man continues. This leads the tightly wound director to barrel down the street to confront the man, who is as old him and obviously homeless. At first, you get the feeling that there will be an altercation but in a moment or two there is solidarity over having a shared experiencee of being an alcoholic and adrift in life.

“Tommaso” is not a conventional film. Like “8 ½”, it is a series of encounters that doesn’t neatly cohere into a narrative arc that most films require. Instead, it is vividly realistic portrayal of two people in a marriage that is hanging on by a thread. I hope for the director’s sake, this is all fictional.

“Tommaso” is part of Kino-Lorber’s virtual cinema series. The film can be rented from a theater where it was originally scheduled to be seen. Go to https://kinomarquee.com/ to buy a virtual ticket.

Finally, let me recommend “Bad Lieutenant”, a 1992 Ferrara film that starred Harvey Keitel as a corrupt, drug-addicted cop—very timely given the current situation. It was the first film I ever saw by Ferrara and that turned me into a devoted fan. It is available on YouTube, Amazon and all the other VOD sources. It is great.

1 Comment »

  1. When I get the chance, I shall try to see Tommaso with an open mind. But it won’t be easy. I can’t forget Abel Ferrara’s blundering about in Italy with his Pasolini of 2014. Was Pasolini the poet, dramatist, filmmaker, Marxist thinker, and passionate publicist who marked an epoch too much for Ferrara to grasp or was Ferrara simply too hurried and lazy to do the job? We got a good performance from Willem Dafoe in a banal crime story built around a murder. That Pier Paolo Pasolini was a homosexual who got himself killed was the least interesting thing about him but seemed to be the only thing that interested Ferrara.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — June 2, 2020 @ 6:55 pm

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