‘Tommaso’, an Expat’s Story
Aggiornamento: 8 apr 2022
The American filmmaker Abel Ferrara is an expatriate living in Rome. He made ‘Pasolini’, a documentary, there in 2014. Italian critics found it commendable but reductive as it was limited to the last day of its subject’s life. Ferrera in true expat fashion was starting a second career in a new place. His American work had not been a failure. It counted a number of films full of violence, crime, and characters balanced on the knife edge. His mood changed in Italy. His second Italian film looked inward at himself. ‘Tommaso’ of 2019 is autofiction in which the excellent Willem Dafoe plays Ferrara in light disguise reliving his expatriation. Like ‘Pasolini’ it dramatises real events swamped in fantasy.
There was fear that ‘Tommaso’ would be a tourist’s visit to Rome, a Woody-Allen fun-abroad movie with a quick tour of the Colosseum and the Trevi Fountain, a peek at Trastevere for local colour, and a love affair with a New York beauty to fill the cracks. But Ferrara is a class above such stuff. Peter Zeitlinger, Werner Herzog’s cinematographer, fills Ferrara’s new, nondescript home quarter with dark sober light that evades glamour. The Italians that Ferrara-Dafoe-Tommaso meets in the local shops and bars are not the salty Italians of Neo-realism nor Felliniesque freaks. In fact, they differ little from his former neighbours in New York, with their big-city indifference until he treads on their toes. We watch Tommaso, a conscientious expat, taking Italian lessons, dropping in the local shops and bars, in the park with his toddler, and at home, doing some cooking, or bent over a notebook with a busy pen preparing his next film. He’s also a teacher in an actors’ studio full of nubile young women.
Tommaso is pushing fifty and has a young wife and three-year-old daughter, both played by Ferrara’s real wife (Cristina Chiriac) and daughter (Anna Ferrara). There are tensions. Fatherhood came late to Tommaso, and he tends to overplay the role of protector and guardian angel. His imagining the worse happening rattles his wife Nikki’s nerves. There’s a generation between them and resentment appears on both sides. Nikki has problems of her own as well, being the daughter of a Moldavian immigrant who drowned in drink.
At this point, however, we have to accept that this is Tommaso’s ego-swollen story. In one dream-like riff, he pulls his heart from his chest and passes it around for examination. He holds centre stage, his strength and weakness are on display, not his wife’s. Hers is an expat’s story too but only hurried over here. Does that invalidate what Ferrara has to say about himself? No, he tells his story, we can moralise it as we like. Someone else can elsewhere spotlight his young wife and ease Tommaso off stage.
One of his ways of telling his story are in sessions of an Addicts Anonymous rehab group that exists in Rome specifically for expats. We learn that Tommaso in his American first-life was addicted to drugs and the bottle. Cured by the Al-Anon therapy, he has been sober for six years and a regular at meetings. Willem Dafoe is especially impressive as he recounts Tommaso’s past to other seekers of normality. It becomes clear that Tommaso’s motive for starting over in Rome has to do with fleeing temptation in his native New York.
Ferrara’s storytelling can be disconcerting. He begins with both feet in reality. But soon we suspect he’s not altogether a reliable narrator. When he spies Nikki in the arms of a young hippie, is it true or a projection of his insecurity? Tommaso is more and more upset by Nikki’s putting off his lovemaking. Ferrara gradually clarifies his narrative method by showing Tommaso drifting into elaborate fantasies like numbers from a musical comedy. His lined face nuzzles one of his unclad young woman students. As Tommaso’s nerves crumble, he moves deeper into fantasyland. Any reliability in telling us about reality in Rome is gone. We understand now some strange happenings that mystified us in his story. That scene where he’s taken to a Rome police station in handcuffs was only an expat’s nightmare. His final murder of the hippie-ish guy is another wish-fulfilling hallucination that like his yoga assuages his anger and puts his troubled mind at rest. As one critic put it, “‘Tommaso’ is a gripping look at the process of escaping to a better life, only to find that the old one follows along at every turn”. Both ‘Pasolini’ and ‘Tommaso’ can be seen on RAI Play.