Producers: Christos V. Konstantakopoulos, Laura Buffoni, Michael Weber and Simone Gottoni  Director: Abel Ferrara   Screenplay: Abel Ferrara   Cast: Willem Dafoe, Anna Ferrara. Cristina Chiriac, Lorenzo Piazzoni, Alessandra Camilla Scarci and Stella Mastrantonio    Distributor: Kino Lorber

Grade:  C+

A film always benefits from the presence of Willem Dafoe, and since in long-time maverick Abel Ferrara’s newest he’s rarely off screen, that’s a point in its favor.  But even he cannot save the writer-director’s semi-self-portrait from degenerating into something approaching self-indulgent navel-gazing.

Ferrara’s surrogate is the titular character, an American expatriate living in Rome with his wife Nikki (Cristina Chiriac, Ferrara’s actual spouse) and little daughter Deedee (Ferrara’s daughter Anna).  A recovering alcoholic and drug addict, Tommaso occasionally works on a script for an upcoming film, but he also takes Italian lessons, practices yoga, gives acting classes, indulges in romantic involvements with other women, including a student of his (Alessandra Camilla Scarci), and participates in long AA meetings, during which he admits his failures but complains about Nikki’s independent streak.

Tommaso is, in short, the sort of character who might seem reflective—he looks back on the mistakes of his earlier life ruefully—but is actually blind to his own serious present-day shortcomings.  He’s a volatile man—generally placid, listening to the people he’s conversing with, shaking his head in commiseration; but when riled he gets explosive.  He can sometimes regain control of himself, as when he rages at a drunk who’s singing in the street outside his apartment late one night, but after talking with the guy calms down and sends him on his way with a handshake. 

But with his wife, self-control seems beyond him, since he’s spied her in the park with another man, and convinces himself of her infidelity.  When she walks off after he goes for a coffee after depositing the trash, effectively deserting her and Deedee in the street, he goes on a rampage that seems never to end.  No wonder she threatens to leave him.

And in the end he sees himself as a martyr of sorts.  In a final splurge of symbolism gone berserk, Tommaso winds up crucified, along with other presumably misunderstood men, in the street, a large crowd looking on the spectacle in bewilderment (and with camera phones at the ready).  And he looks soulfully at us. Dafoe has been crucified on screen before, of course, in Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ.”  But Ferrara’s use of the religious iconography seeks less a knowing wink than a serious expression of the protagonist’s psychological self-portrait. 

Of course one can’t take everything in “Tommaso” in objectively realistic terms.  The film blends what is actually happening in the character’s life with what he imagines.  Are his sultry dalliances with beautiful young women as much inventions as his crucifixion?  Does he actually see his wife with another man, or does his insecurity lead him to suspect infidelity where none exist?  Is the chilliness in Nikki’s attitude toward him genuine, or a projection of his own feelings about her?  By making his film half confessional and half apologia, Ferrara aims to have things both ways, but while that might actually reflect his inner turmoil, it has the feel of an artist hedging his bets.

Still, there is a good deal to admire here, not least Dafoe’s bristling performance, which runs the gamut from husband and father eager to please to raving man stoked by self-pity, and Peter Zeitlinger’s cinematography, which makes the byways of Rome look luminous as the title character meanders through them.  The other technical aspects–Tommaso Ortino’s production design, Fabio Nunziata’s editing, Joe Delia’s music—are adequate without matching the poetry of the camerawork.

Directors are often drawn to autobiographical reverie, and that’s what Ferrara is engaged in here.  The result is no “8½,” but it has its points of interest, even if as a whole it’s as frustrating as its title character.