ABEL FERRARA IS an independent director with a small but
loyal following, and The Funeral, his twelfth film, has
all the hallmarks of a classic Ferrara endeavor: low budget, gunplay,
crude sex, debates of Catholic theology spiked with a little undergrad
philosophy, and a starring role for Christopher Walken. Ferrara's
movies are so bad they're entrancing. Watching The Funeral
is like witnessing a traffic accident: You don't want to gawk
at the violence and misfortune, but then, you kind of do
want to gawk.
The story concerns several days in the life of an Italian family
during the 1930s. The Italians are, of course, gangsters, because
if there's one thing we've learned from the movies it's that all
Italians are gangsters. Ferrara's films are written by a guy named
Nicholas St. John, and if bad art were a crime, St. John would
be in a high-security facility.
St. John rotates through the obvious film genres in his writing
for Ferrara, bringing his own special brand of Catholic guilt
to a series of familiar story lines, including Bad Lieutenant,
a gritty police drama (including a stylish, sexy rape of a nun,
an all-time high in bad taste); Dangerous Games, a movie
about filmmaking; The Addiction, a vampire movie; and now,
with The Funeral, he turns his formulaic imagination to
the gangster flick.
What makes these films different from mainstream vampire, filmmaking,
gangster and cop movies is St. John's truly bizarre artistic sensibility.
It seems like he might have read a lot of Dostoyevsky a long time
ago, and his scripts are peppered with debates over free will,
fate and the role of God. His characters tend to stop what they're
doing to muse, out loud, about issues of morality. Then they shoot
the guts out of each other.
The resulting scenes are laughable but also sort of fascinating
because they're so strange. Walken, with his intense, highly affected
acting style, only heightens the sense that the film was made
by space aliens. In The Funeral, Walken plays Ray, the
eldest brother of an Italian clan, which has gathered together
to mourn the passing of Johnny (Vincent Gallo), the youngest brother.
Walken comes off like an angry robot, putting little spaces between
all of his words when he speaks and fixing the other Italians
with his reptilian stare. He was traumatized as a child, apparently,
when his mentally ill father forced him to kill a thief. Or did
he force him? Ah, these are the conundrums that fuel the murky
philosophical engine of The Funeral.
The film consists of the funeral itself, as well as copious flashbacks
to let us know just how the little brother came to be whacked.
It turns out that he was a man of ideas, a Communist fighting
for the working man. The dead brother was also a gangster, a killer,
and a party boy, as were all of the brothers.
The Funeral is punctuated with weird party scenes featuring
gratuitous, disturbing sexual encounters. One scene features Johnny
and his brothers hanging out with a bunch of half-dressed women,
watching the 1930s' version of a stag film. With no explanation,
Johnny starts to make out with a woman old enough to be his grandmother.
Meanwhile, the brothers' wives are at home bemoaning their fates.
Annabella Sciorra manages to be calm and dignified as Walken's
wife; Isabella Rossellini is fine in her small role of Clara,
wife of brother Chez, played by Christopher Penn, who seems no
more psychotic than his siblings, even though all the characters
turn to each other as soon as he leaves the room and exclaim,
The women, though, are mostly given the very hazardous duty of
sitting around and providing exposition. Annabella Sciorra turns
to Johnny's young fiancée and says something like, "These
brothers have us all fooled! We think they're so interesting--individualists,
mavericks--but they're not interesting. They're just criminals."
I was inclined to agree.
I wasn't really in the mood for a movie the day I saw The
Funeral, and it was so bad I kept gathering my things together
so I could walk out. But every time I was about to leave, some
disturbing sex would start to happen on the screen and I would
find myself hanging back. It was the car crash again. I didn't
want to watch it, but I didn't want to miss it, either. I stayed
to the bitter end.