A correction was made to this review on August 13, 2003.
Rafi Pitts’ made-for-French-TV docu, “Abel Ferrara: Not Guilty,” gets up so close and personal with one of U.S. cinema’s most erratic talents that the focus, metaphorically and almost literally, gets slightly fuzzy. Fascinating and frustrating in near equal measures, pic benefits from the extra-large personality of its subject, seen here prowling the streets of New York, explaining how he shot key scenes from some of his movies, shooting a pop vid, but most of all shooting the breeze with his posse of friends and collaborators. DV-shot picture has strongest prospects as fest or TV fodder.
Enjoying near unlimited access to Ferrara over five days, docu builds an impressionistic collage of the maverick helmer’s chaotic lifestyle. Leaving out voiceover, explanatory subtitles or even any of the questions director Pitts must have asked off-camera, pic lets the subject speak for himself — seemingly about whatever floats into his head. Nevertheless, Ferrara comes across as witty, engaging and far more lucid than one would expect given his reputation for hard living in the past (alluded to frankly by friends).
In conversations with actress Echo Danon, production designer and friend Frank DeCurtis, and the guy who runs his favorite Chelsea guitar store, Ferrara recalls filming the Chinatown shoot-out in “King of New York,” discusses Harvey Keitel’s need for on-set privacy while making “Bad Lieutenant,” and wistfully watches a scene from “New Rose Hotel” on DVD featuring Willem Dafoe and ex-lover Asia Argento.
Seen shooting a pop vid for R&B group Abenaa, Ferrara comes across as professional and focused as he meticulously sets up a shot, a sequence that undercuts his rep for shambolic discipline on set. However, while off duty he puts on an often amusing display of roguish, trash-talking behavior –chatting up pretty girls by pretending to be making a documentary, and messing around on the guitar in between gulps of beer.
As if to illustrate the proximity between the director and his characters, Pitts cuts heavy-handedly from a clip of Keitel shooting his car radio in “Bad Lieutenant” to Ferrara displaying a bout of temper outside a bar.
The revelations about Ferrara’s work are more tantalizing than truly satisfying, and will leave fans wanting to know more, especially when it comes to the projects that didn’t get made or are being prepared now. For example, Ferrara reveals he was asked by the producers of “September 11” (aka “11’09’01”) to direct the U.S. segment of the portmanteau film but then was “disinvited.” Sean Penn got the gig instead and, per Ferrara, came around later to apologize, the kind of anecdote one would like to hear more of here.
Similarly, Ferrara is seen desultorily collaborating with his co-screenwriter, Simone Lageoles, for his next project “Go-Go Tales” and rehearsing Echo Danon and Pamela Tiffin in a scene, but few details of the script are revealed.
Overall, although Ferrara’s intelligence and robust personality are vividly captured, there’s a wistful sense at play that his is a major talent blocked from realizing its full potential by self-destructive tendencies.
Intentionally low-lit to suggest the nocturnal, underground world Ferrara lives in and makes movies about, lensing is umbral without losing too much visibility. A transfer from Dig-Beta to celluloid might further degrade the image. Sound quality is more problematic, especially given Ferrara’s frequent mumbling.