Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Funeral

Abel Ferrara's The Funeral (1996) is a collection of fragments--fascinating, eccentric, incomplete--that don't quite fit together as a coherent whole. The crowded screenplay by Nicholas St. John (his tenth and final script for Ferrara) tackles a buffet of heavy subjects, including revenge, suicide, and labor disputes, but never more than one of these things at the same time. The obvious upside of Ferrara's scattershot approach is that there's too much going on for the film ever to become boring; the downside is that he never pursues an idea to its logical conclusion.

Set during the Depression, the film is a gangster story about three brothers. The movie opens with the coffin containing the body of the youngest brother, Johnny (Vincent Gallo), being delivered to the home of the middle brother, Chez (Chris Penn). The oldest, Ray (Christopher Walken), wants to find who did it and take revenge, but his wife, Jean (Annabella Sciorra), who still believes that the family can be saved, pleads for him to let it go. In a flashback to Ray's childhood, his father (Gian DiDonna) has him kill a man as a kind of rite of passage, explaining that if they were to let him go, the man would inevitably come back and kill them in case they changed their minds.

Also in flashback, we see the days leading up to Johnny's death. One day, a rival gangster, Gaspare (Benicio Del Toro), comes into the brothers' bar, representing a factory owner who wants to pay the brothers a thousand dollars a week to have the union lay off the factory owner. And Johnny, who's a communist, takes an instant disliking to Gaspare ("You could hire a lot of workers for a thousand dollars"). Later, Johnny starts sleeping with Gaspare's wife, which makes Gaspare a suspect in his murder. In the middle of the night, Ray's henchmen bring Gaspare in, and Ray comes to the realization that he can't let him go, even if he didn't kill Johnny, echoing the scene with Ray's father ("I have no choice. You're never going to forget this"). For his part, Gaspare seems remarkably coolheaded about the prospect of having his legs chopped off with an axe.

Additionally, there's a third subplot involving Chez, who has a traumatic flashback of his own. We learn that their father committed suicide, and as a result, Chez suffers from depression. His wife, Clara (Isabella Rossellini), wants him to go to a clinic in Belgium for treatment, but when she assures him that no one would know, Chez replies, "I'd know," which effectively ends the discussion. If the revenge plot is an awkward fit for the stuff about labor unions, this whole subplot seems to exist in isolation from the rest of the movie, almost as if their father's suicide had no effect on either Johnny or Ray.

Maybe Ferrara wants to show that all three brothers are beyond saving, although that probably wouldn't matter to Johnny, who's almost certainly an atheist. In any event, there's a curious sequence set in a whorehouse in which Chez offers a teenage prostitute five dollars to go straight home ("You could have a life," he tells her). The girl replies that, if he gave her five more, they could have sex; Chez responds by giving her twenty and then raping her while shouting, "You just sold your soul!" Ferrara takes Catholicism, and the conventions of film noir, too seriously for women to have any role in the story except as nagging wives or whores.

Ferrara is willing to spend a lot of time on scenes that are not particularly essential to the plot. In one long sequence in a bar, a friend of Johnny's acts like a drunken buffoon, which starts to wear on Gaspare's nerves. A little later, when the friend goes outside to pee against a wall, Gaspare stabs him in the belly. I think the point of this sequence is to show that Gaspare is capable of killing, making him a more credible suspect in Johnny's murder, but the length of the sequence is far out of proportion to its importance to the story. On the other hand, when Ray uncovers Johnny's killer, both his identity and his motive seem rather arbitrary. We don't even see the event that motivated Johnny's murder, which is probably just as well since it sounds more like something Chez would do. Likewise, Gretchen Mol is supposed to play Johnny's girlfriend, but unless I'm mistaken, she and Gallo don't have a single scene together.

Would Ferrara produce a better movie if he were more disciplined? His best known work, Bad Lieutenant (1992), also has a rather full plate and again Ferrara creates some memorable isolated sequences (the scene in which Harvey Keitel pulls over two teenage girls is some kind of creepy masterpiece), but there, the film's apocalyptic vision of Dinkins-era New Yawk gives the story a kind of scuzzy coherence, so it adds up to something greater than the sum of its parts. The Funeral has some very good scenes, but they don't add up.

I haven't seen all of Ferrara's films, but at the risk of generalizing, The Funeral feels like a tipping point between the relative coherence of Bad Lieutenant and his more confused (but still interesting) later films, like Mary (2005)--that is, the moment when structure and theme go out the window, and the scene becomes everything. In addition to The Funeral being his last collaboration with St. John, all of his subsequent films--with the exception of 'R Xmas (2001) and his documentary Chelsea on the Rocks (2008), which I haven't seen--have been shot abroad, presumably because it's become too expensive to shoot in New York; Martin Scorsese hasn't made a film there since Bringing Out the Dead (1999), and Woody Allen works primarily in London now. If Ferrara's become unhinged structurally and geographically, the results are often thrilling, as in his more languorous and experimental New Rose Hotel (1998), but they also lack resonance.

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