Of course there’s a metric ton of Christ imagery, as in so many of Ferrara’s movies. Ferrara is deploying religious iconography to connect Tommaso’s lived experience to the moral framework he learned as a child. He is often filmed in crucifixion poses. There’s a scene that plays like a cut moment from Scorsese’s “Last Temptation,” but in post-millennial street clothes. We get hints that Tommaso is self-dramatizing his torment rather than constructively engaging with it: a narcissist nailing himself to cross instead of dealing with what’s in front of him. But we also see Tommaso behaving in accordance with Christ’s teachings, replacing anger with compassion, de-escalating situations that could spiral out of control.
It helps in this kind of movie to have Willem Dafoe play the hero. Not only has he portrayed one of the great cinematic Jesuses (in Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ”), he’s played Christ-like figures (notably in “Platoon”) and secular spiritual pilgrims. He’s also played villains, monsters, abusers, and tempters, always with conviction, sometimes with relish. He channels the dark and light sides here, making us love and pity and root for the character, then loathe him (as Nikki sometimes does). This is one of the great Dafoe performances—a summation of everything he’s done and everything he’s about.
Tommasso was a womanizer during his drug days, so we aren’t surprised when he starts to stray, or tries to, out of pride, or fear of relative impotence (he feels old next to his young wife, and being cuckolded amplifies that a thousandfold). We also watch the suppressed anger start to build within him, to the point where his movements become wilder and more impulsive, and his conversations with Nikki more insinuating, combative, and petty.
As the film unfolds, there are sex scenes, sex fantasies, makeout scenes, and chaste flirtations with younger women (including a student and a fellow AA group member). Some of these are “real” and others are clearly fantasies, and clunky ones at that, settling into a mode reminiscent of the Great Director-driven, very male European art house pictures lauded in the ‘60s and ‘70s. These tendencies are leavened by Ferrara’s attention to psychology. We learn that Nikki might’ve been drawn to Tommaso because her own dad abandoned her at a young age, and there are suggestions that, like the older professor in “Moonstruck” who keeps hitting on female grad students, Tommaso fixates on younger women because he fears death. A student that Tommaso flirts with tells him a story about her father that sounds like it could’ve happened to Nikki. Sexual and romantic patterns repeat themselves in people’s lives, just like cycles of addiction and recovery. Attraction itself is an intoxicant. That’s why people describe being in love or lust as a “rush.” They get high from it.