Bad-boy director Abel Ferrara loves to shock the squares. In his notorious slice of New York street life, Bad Lieutenant, he had corrupt cop Harvey Keitel snort cocaine off his little daughter's First Communion photo and extort sex from a pair of scared teenage girls from Jersey. Ferrara jived up vampire legend in The Addiction, and he injected some raw sexuality into his otherwise timid remake of (Invasion of the) Body Snatchers.
Take that, the Bronx-born renegade seems to be saying. Tarantino, hell. I'm really gonna scandalize your ass by spilling brains all over the sidewalk and revealing low life in every depraved, violent, carnal detail.
Well, okay. Maybe that's not a bad ambition--especially if such self-appointed guardians of the public welfare as Jesse Helms and William Bennett happen to be watching. But there's another side to this filmmaker that doesn't square up so well with his rebellious tough-guy persona: The frightened altar boy inside Abel Ferrara carries a huge load of Catholic guilt with him, along with a thirst for inquiry into the mysteries of sin and soul that might better suit, say, a sophomore at Holy Cross.
Now, there's certainly nothing wrong with looking at the moral underpinnings of corruption, but Ferrara tends to do it at the Baltimore Catechism level. In Bad Lieutenant, for instance, the evil cop quite literally sees God in a local church and runs out to seek absolution. In Ferrara's new film, The Funeral, the members of a low-rent Thirties crime family avidly work their nice little union-protection racket. But the most volatile of the brothers, Chez (Chris Penn), must undergo a bush-league epiphany with a young whore-in-the-making, to whom he offers freedom. Ferrara has to show us How Brother Ray (a rather restrained Christopher Walken) Got That Way, with some flashbacks to the night a violent father taught his sons about violent revenge. Even Johnny (Vincent Gallo again), the murdered brother indicated in the title, has had his little crosses to bear: While the rest of the Tempio brothers are busy corrupting labor, we learn in flashback, Johnny's been alternately hanging out at Communist Party meetings and sleeping with the trashy wife of a rival mobster (Benicio Del Toro).
As always with Ferrara, the weight of moralism here is a little too much for the drama he provides--probably because he's so much better at portraying evil than good. For a Ferrara film, The Funeral is also oddly inert: The director is so busy poking around in the alleged spiritual crises of his small-time hoods that there's no room for the movie to live and breathe. It's difficult enough to believe that minor thugs with bent noses and sixth-grade diplomas spend a lot of time examining their own morality or philosophizing about revenge; it's even harder to watch them do it. Imagine Sonny Corleone dipping into his venerable old volume of St. Thomas Aquinas before slipping out to machine-gun the Salazzo brothers: These things require considerable deep meditation, don't you know? Or so we're led to believe, as the tormented Ray agonizes over whether to simply shoot the guy who killed his brother in the face or move on to some higher plane of discourse.
Meanwhile, the film's impressive brace of actresses get mighty short shrift. As the explosive Chez's wife, Clara, Isabella Rossellini has three or four lines of dialogue, and Annabella Sciorra's Jean, wife of Ray Tempio, recites five or so. Otherwise, Ferrara is still trying to shock: In its present form, the movie's central bedroom episode is graphic and gory enough, but the director cut seven steamy seconds out of it to avoid an NC-17 rating. The altar boy/revolutionary artist's response? "A group of Beverly Hills housewives telling me what's suitable? You gotta really fucking find that amusing."
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Fine, Abel. Put whatever images you want up there on the screen. But make the whole package a little more dynamic next time, willya? And a little less like the good monsignor's vintage sermon on sin and retribution.
The Funeral. Screenplay by Nicholas St. John. Directed by Abel Ferrara. With Christopher Walken, Chris Penn, Annabella Sciorra, Isabella Rossellini and Vincent Gallo.