Abel Ferrara’s new crime drama, “The Funeral,” continues his obsessive exploration of the roots of good and evil. This period film is a companion piece, in terms of theme, to “King of New York” and “Bad Lieutenant.” A top-notch cast, headed by Christopher Walken, Benicio Del Toro and Chris Penn, and a greater concern for women’s roles than Ferrara has previously shown, make this an easier pic to enjoy than the director’s work to date. Still, it’s not much more commercial than Ferrara’s other outings, and no more likely to recruit many new devotees.
While “Bad Lieutenant” was mostly about the work and public persona of a corrupt cop, with very little info about his roles as husband and father, “The Funeral” reverses the strategy and centers on the family lives and personal relationships of three racketeering brothers: Ray (Walken), the oldest; middle son Chez (Penn), the most volatile; and Johnny (Vincent Gallo), the most overtly political.
A clip of Bogart in “The Petrified Forest” and a Billie Holiday song situate the drama in the Great Depression. Pic begins with the placement of Johnny’s coffin in Ray’s living room, surrounded by huge bouquets of flowers from both desirable and undesirable members of the community. In a labyrinthine narrative , based on lengthy flashbacks, Ferrara and writer Nicholas St. John unfold the multigenerational saga of the Tempios, an Italian-American family torn apart by a tradition of violence.
Though close to one another, the three brothers are very different in their personalities, politics and approach to life. The strongest, most rational — and most coolly cruel — of the three, Ray contrasts sharply with both the temperamental, violenceprone Chez and the charming Johnny, who’s committed to leftist politics.
The women in their lives are also vastly different. Ray is married to Jeanette (Annabella Sciorra), a bright, educated woman unafraid to express her opinions even when they diverge from hubby’s. Chez’s spouse, Clara (Isabella Rossellini), is quietly sensitive and long-suffering, and handsome Johnny is engaged to the shy and beautiful Helen (Gretchen Mol).
Dramatically, pic revolves around the mystery of who shot Johnny and his brothers’ almost animalistic determination to avenge his death. Prime suspect is Gaspare (Del Toro in another impressive turn), with whose wife Johnny was having an indiscreet affair. But the setup feels like an excuse for telling a saga far more grave and ambitious than a routine revenge yarn. It’s to the filmmakers’ credit that when the killer’s identity is disclosed, it serves as an impetus for a weighty examination of such issues as the burden of family ties and to what extent it’s possible to end a legacy of evil after generations of criminal violence.
Ferrara’s past work was often marked by an inability to harness his eccentric artistic impulses to a coherent, emotionally resonant story. But not here: The chief achievement of “The Funeral” is its mature and grounded filmmaking. New pic may lack the audacity of “Bad Lieutenant,” the visual boldness of “The Addiction” and the grand operatic style of “King of New York,” but it’s much more solid and substantial.
Still, after an excellent beginning, pic drags in its midsection, becoming too solemn for its own good. The film recovers with a particularly strong final half-hour that clarifies Ferrara’s goal here of subverting a genre’s conventions one by one. Pic’s shocking closure is downbeat but powerful.
The male performers are all distinguished, with standout work from Penn, Gallo and De Toro. In the central and most complex role, Walken shines throughout, especially in the scene in which he confronts his brother’s killer. Among the female cast members, Sciorra is excellent, and the beautiful Rossellini continues to show improvement as a dramatic actress.
Charles Lagola’s resourceful production design, careful location work by lenser Ken Kelsch and tasteful period costumes by Mindy Eshelman contribute to an authentic sense of time and place.