1996, R, 99 min. Directed by Abel Ferrara. Starring Christopher Walken, Chris Penn, Annabella Sciorra, Isabella Rossellini, Vincent Gallo, Benicio Del Toro.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Sat., Nov. 22, 1997
Nobody spins a good morality yarn like Abel Ferrara. With The Funeral, the notorious director delivers his most straight-ahead movie, having reined in some of his more extreme narrative impulses while continuing his intrepid thematic exploration of worlds bereft of moral compasses. The Funeral is a period piece and a family saga set against the backdrop of a 1930s gangster milieu. Yet any relationship with the Corleones stops right there, for The Funeral is quintessential Ferrara. Beginning with the gloomy title, the movie makes little attempt to woo an audience with soothing terms of endearment or emotional comfort. This time out, however, Ferrara's moral excoriation is tempered by the movie's solid and realistic story line and its stunning assemblage of performances. Absent is the ultra-violence that plagued The King of New York and The Addiction (although The Funeral's gangsters are hardly strangers to violence and gunplay); gone, too, is the abject self-abasement of Bad Lieutenant (although, once again, The Funeral's characters find themselves spiritually groping amidst the secular and profane. The Tempio brothers -- eldest Ray (Walken), middle brother Chez (Penn), and youngest Johnny (Gallo) -- learned from their father, in a vividly recounted scene, their lifelong dogmas about manhood, loyalty, and trust. It was a lesson reiterated by popular culture: A Bogart passage from The Petrified Forest constitutes the opening scene of The Funeral. The family priest condemns their “practical atheism” but Ray's wife Jean (Sciorra) asks him to pray for them anyway. She is the only one who can see how the family is spinning its moral wheels. She explains to her sister-in-law Clara (Rossellini), Chez's wife: “They pass themselves off as rugged individualists. But they never rose above their heartless, illiterate upbringing. We think it's romantic, but it's not.” Only Johnny, the youngest, seems capable of turning his back on the past, but then too it's Johnny who is laid out in a casket in the film's opening moments. Told almost entirely in flashback, the movie relates the events leading up to Johnny's death. The brothers have been involved in labor union racketeering, but Johnny begins finding himself swayed by all the communist theory he absorbs at the meetings. “We should be taking over the Ford Motor Company instead of shooting each other,” he comments at one lucid point. The performances in The Funeral are all electrifying. Ferrara also aligns himself with many of his longtime associates in the creation of The Funeral, most notably screenwriter Nicholas St. John, music composer Joe Delia, and cinematographer Ken Kelsch. Their contributions are intrinsic to what we think of as a “Ferrara” film. In The Funeral, so many of the team's recurring elements coalesce to create a piece that may serve as the perfect portal into the “Ferrara” universe.