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Moral Addiction

Chris Penn
Mafia Morals: Chris Penn wrestles with the implications of his family's crime business in Abel Ferrara's "The Funeral."

Abel Ferrara sounds a familiar ethical strain in 'The Funeral'

By Richard von Busack

JUST AS they took the cop film and the vampire film and turned them into texts on morality, director Abel Ferrara and writer Nicholas St. John have dissected the gangster film in The Funeral. Although the genre is different, the movie reprises the central question of Bad Lieutenant and The Addiction: Without morality, or without religious faith, how does a man anchor himself? What becomes of people living by the code of "Do What Thou Wilt?"

The post-Coppola gangster bears an implicit morality--no one gets whacked without a reason. In this small, dark, period picture set in the 1930s--an agreeably bare-bones 1930s, so period quaintness doesn't distract from the story--Ferrara and St. John argue that situational ethics are immaterial, that these supposed men of honor are really just murderers.

Not since The Godfather, except in parody, has a director delivered such an unmythical look at the gangster. Annabella Sciorra, as an embittered mob wife, tells another woman mourning a dead gangster, "They're criminals, and there's nothing romantic about that."

One can see how far Ferrara and St. John diverge from the vision of men of honor in the scene in which Ray (Christopher Walken), the patriarch of a crime clan, talks to a member (Benicio del Toro) of a rival mob who he believes has betrayed him. In a flash of insight, Ray realizes that it is the lack of trustworthiness that keeps these Mafiosi from achieving great things. If they hadn't been so busy shooting each other, "we could have taken over Ford Motors."

The Funeral consists of a first act, a long flashback and a sort of epilogue about the decline and fall of a gang of three brothers, united by blood and their own bad memories. Ray is the eldest, and the leader; the good-time-loving but mentally unstable Chez (Chris Penn) is the middle brother. The youngest, Johnny (Vincent Gallo), is being laid out by the morticians even as we meet them.

Johnny, sensitive and bookish, had hoped to get away from the family business of protection racketeering to which they had all been exposed as children. We see how they were introduced to crime in a convincing, traumatic flashback. On the periphery are Clara (Isabella Rosellini) as Chez's deeply religious wife; and Jean (Sciorra), who has had enough education to recognize just how volatile Chez is. On a futile search for revenge, Ray hopes to find Johnny's killer before Chez explodes on his own.

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Richard von Busack's review of director
Abel Ferrara's last film.

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FERRARA and St. John have the field of moral tales pretty much to themselves in American film, even at a time when the study of ethics has come back into vogue. The two don't pretend that the God who administers their particular educated-Catholic version of ethics is always a God of Love. In fact, in Ferrara/St. John movies, God always seems to demand sacrifice.

As usual, The Funeral abounds with telling details: arguing for his life when he's about to be shot out of revenge, a victim tells his assailant, "You have a choice of doing something good instead of something bad--isn't that more important than justice?" But Ferrara's way of selling a moral tale now looks standardized. The Funeral feels too familiar in a sex scene in which a maddened Penn does something painful to a baby-faced prostitute and in the scene in which Gallo raves about decadence as a friend takes a rented girl right in front of him.

Christian ethics state that sexual looseness harms the soul as much as murder. Whether a modern atheist/agnostic audience ought to accept that proposition is beyond me. Besides, these scenes look too much like a director straining for gratuitous sensation in the midst of a more sober study.

Some actors as werewolves are fascinating, but Gallo's Johnny is already half-crazed, a devil sick of sin, when we see him in flashback, and Penn's Chez looks like a killer from the moment he shows up on screen. Most of all, Ferrara has trod this path before--the same scheme of Catholic guilt, decadence and expiation by death that's actually more urgent than the surface tale of a family doomed by a strain of madness. The Funeral is minor, formulaic Ferrara, more a collection of occasionally interesting scenes than a consistently compelling drama.


The Funeral (R; 98 min.), directed Abel Ferrara, written by Nicholas St. John, photographed by Ken Kelsch and starring Christopher Walken, Chris Penn and Vincent Gallo.

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From the November 7-13, 1996 issue of Metro

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