Tommaso (Abel Ferrara, 2019) – Review

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I must say, it is actually a strange feeling to see a new Abel Ferrara film after knowing of his moving to Italy and focusing on documentaries for a few years (none of which I have been able to see yet)… but it also feels so right that this would be the film to essentially welcome this veteran director ‘home’ once more.

A semi-autobiographical picture, even going so far as to star Ferrara’s wife and child as Willem Dafoe’s wife and child, there is of course a certain intimacy carried by Tommaso, and whilst this self-reflexive style is nothing new, the approach to these subjects in Tommaso certainly is. Ferrara’s break clearly shows a certain ageing behind the scenes – whether that is more noticeable and direct due to the semi-autobiographical focus or solely from a more subtle approach to themes, I can’t be certain – a regression from the vulgar and abrasive director he once was in the late 1990s, the time that so much of this film is focused on.

Looking back to the 1990s, a time when Abel Ferrara was abusing drugs to the point that even Vincent Gallo said he was ‘unable to direct’ The Funeral in 1996, all of Ferrara’s work (aside from Body Snatchers, which is also interesting given that it focuses on how the external can change the internal) at the time houses a harsh hatred toward the self, with a clear focus on self destruction, particularly in Dangerous Game and The Blackout which respectively focus on an artist’s trouble with infidelity and drug abuse and how they have led to tragedy, and it is this transparency – this honesty – that makes this film feel so raw and so intimate.

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To cast his own family to star, to focus on these demons from the past in such an open-ended manner but also to admit that these things are true make this quite touching to anyone aware of Ferrara and his frequently troubled background, and the film deals with these themes in such a delicate style that it feels as if it comes from a man genuinely born again.

The raw and free-flowing direction of the film with its improvisational script/performances and a camera that is almost always gently gliding through buildings and quietly observing the characters as they interact with their surroundings and with each other also adds a great deal to establishing a very different style for Ferrara, one only seen once before in 2011 with 4:44 Last Day On Earth, that feels detached from what came before, making it feel truly in-the-moment as perhaps none of his films have before, only adding to this paranoid feeling that comes with the consistent reflection on Ferrara’s demons, ones that the audience is led to presume are in the past but that are always picking away at Tommaso in the background, his struggles with infidelity and with staying sober being a much more creeping and insidious pain than that of his drug addiction of the past. Ferrara treats the film almost as an open confession, one where he is able to bring these new and previously unmentioned demons to light in a way that allows him to question the direction he finds himself going in but also one that looks perspicuously at this horrifying lingering effect that Ferrara’s past with drugs has on him even today after a long time of being sober.

Of course, it is no mistake that the film features Christ-like imagery either. Whilst this film definitely isn’t comparable in very many ways to Ferrara’s Mary from 2005 in its pondering of religion, there is a subtle approach to religion that seems to almost hide in the background of the film. The closing shots to Tommaso are so impactful not only because of the disarray that precedes them, but also because they sharply force the audience to question whether Abel sees himself as Christ – someone helping all through parables and through openness despite the fact that he remains reviled by so many – or whether the only Second Coming in this case is that of the demons that he felt so sure he had managed to leave in the past.

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