Neil Bahadur’s review published on Letterboxd:
The keystone of Abel Ferrara's Tommaso happens midway through the film, during an altercation between the title character and a drunken Pakistani immigrant, which begins with Dafoe ready to assault the man (over scaring his child), quickly but gradually deescalating in the two men finding common ground in that they're both immigrants, forced out of the countries they hail from for similar economic reasons, eventually shaking hands and perhaps with a burgeoning friendship. It's easy to underrate Tommaso, on the surface a minor work, yet no Ferrara film up to this point has had such a quiet, meditative air. Or perhaps, if it is minor, it's the rare case of an intentionally minor film - a small work designed to please it's maker first and foremost. And in that sense its easy to overlook on first glance, but it's tough not to go back and be impressed by it in retrospect - in a year that's revealed itself as ultimately rather staid, safe and unchallenging, Tommaso's free-form structure and meandering narrative is almost a relief if not a delight, with Ferrara and Dafoe (from interviews it seems Tommaso isn't a Ferrara-stand in as I thought but rather a joint creation between the two of them based on their own personal lives) letting it all hang loose, not for any sense of catharsis but in a genuine portrait of and search for what it is to be a working artist in the world, while living with a family and raising a child. What are the the other films which devote themselves to the challenges of creating as an artist and parenting at once? Tommaso feels especially precious, because it's the kind intentional minor film from a major filmmaker I feel we're going to see increasingly less, and from where I left off earlier, one can already see from it's being ignored by all the major North American festivals that even in its year of premiere it's been doomed to obscurity - I saw in the TIFF press synopsis for Uncut Gems for example, the comparison of them to Ferrara. Uncut Gems is a great film, but how disrespectful to make the comparison yet not program that persons latest work? Tommaso is the most gentle, touching and unassuming film of Ferrara's entire career, and if it's *about* anything, it's about just trying to be a good person and make the right decisions, the insecurites that maybe it's too late to change, but that you might as well try. It's disappearance from the festival circuit is a shame - not to fall too deeply into auteurist-games, but it's probably the first time Ferrara has made a film where I feel fairly certain he's in a good place emotionally.
I admit I didn't quite get this film until I saw another review on here note that it's essentially Ferrara's own version of 8 1/2 (interestingly, in one of the very distinctly based on Ferrara sections, Tommaso notes that The Blackout was started as a remake of La Dolce Vita) but while I could never click with that film because I always felt that it inadvertently revealed that Fellini was always more about the fame than he was about movies - Ferrara isn't a celebrity, he never became a popular artist, but also - who cares? Unless you're a musician, maybe the age of the artist-celebrity is over - and to be fair, good riddance. But in Ferrara/Dafoe's Tommaso having a relatively "normal" life compared to his more popular counterparts, much of the joys of Tommaso the film come from the characters interactions with the people and settings around him. Even if it does dwell on sections of each of its author's personal lives, Tommaso is less a character study than it is a portrait of the joys of that "normal" life itself - raising a child, visiting friends...enjoying one's day-to-day existence. For anyone who read me on Pasolini, I noted then that it reminded me of what John Ford called 'grace notes' - when Tommaso is at its best, the film is essentially an endless succession of these. Tommaso - the film - is more a portrait of a succession of experiences, both the characters and others, conflated into
At the same time, this doesn't really need to be two hours long, and in it's later stretches becomes a bit repetitive. Furthermore, it's strengths are in how it opens up the world to what Tommaso sees day in and day out, rather than locking in on Tommaso itself, and once it does hone in on the character specifically - without spoilers, since it's still a mystery even to me and maybe someone else will figure this one out - closing with on one hand is a sort of confirmation that this isn't based entirely on either Ferrara or Dafoe's personal life, but also with a frustrating ambiguity that Ferrara rarely falls into. One can maybe try to perceive it as a knowing fear of irrelevance or feeling outdated - most of the crowd who watches Dafoe's cruxification are people of colour and they all look genuinely perplexed at the situation, lol - but racial questions are not really a topic of this movie and it comes in far too late to make much sense within the context of everything else we have seen. Regardless, it's an odd direction to go in - especially given that the rehabilitation sections, clearly directly from Ferrara's own life (including an ancedote from the production of The Blackout, which is this movies mysterious twin brother in a way) ends up being more often than not the most emotionally affecting sections.
This is almost certainly Ferrara's least political work and in a way it never really lives up to the films provocative opening - an American immigrant learning a new language - but nevertheless it's one of the most genuinely pleasant and touching films Ferrara has made, essentially a sort of revision, sequel and career auto-correct to The Blackout, which is so well meaning and frankly, harmless that it's hard to want to critique it. This is far from major Ferrara - possibly the most expendable of all his post 90s features, but one gets the sense the director wouldn't have had it any other way - even if, as Ferrara/Dafoe insist, Tommaso is not based on their lives, this feels like a home movie expanded into a feature film. I noted in passing to a friend that this film was "the opposite of The Beach Bum," which inadvertently made me want to revisit it, and I wonder if it's maybe the best way to describe this movie?
Or, as Tommaso says at the end of another day with his acting students (or should we say Dafoe's?), "If you're only doing emotional things that you feel safe with, then it's only for you. You've gotta go beyond yourself. We all know in life that when we do things, we forget about ourselves, and we're just doing the action in a pure way. That's when we get closer to experiencing, for me, the beauty of life."