Funeral, The: Ferrara’s Crime Drama, Starring Christopher Walken, Vincent Gallo and Benicio Del Toro

After his idiosyncratic take on modern vampirism in The Addiction, Abel Ferrara’s new crime drama, The Funeral, continues his obsessive exploration of the roots of good and evil in human existence, an issue that received its most schematic and religious formulation in The Bad Lieutenant.


Though stylistically different, thematically speaking, this period film is a companion piece to King of New York and The Bad Lieutenant, forming some sort of an urban crime trilogy. A top-notch cast, headed by Christopher Walken, Benicio Del Toro and Chris Penn, and a greater concern for women’s roles than in the past, make it easier to appreciate and enjoy this picture, though it’s not much more commercial than Ferrara’s previous outings and no more likely to recruit many new devotees.

Probably no director in contemporary American cinema has exhibited in his work such a deep gap as Ferrara between the dictates of his head and those of his heart–and gut. In film after film over the last 15 years, Ferrara’s high art and philosophical ambitions clash with his natural disposition for lowlife–and lowdown–sleaze. This may be a result of frequent collaborations with scripter Nicholas St. John, but also of undeniable intellectual pretentiousness.

If “Bad Lieutenant” was mostly about the work and public persona of a corrupt cop, with very little about him as a husband and father, “The Funeral” reverses the strategy and centers on the family lives and personal relationships among three racketeering brothers: Ray (Walken), the oldest, Chez (Chris Penn), the middle and most volatile, and Johnny (Vincent Gallo), the most overtly political.

A clip of Humphrey Bogart from “The Petrified Forest” and a Billie Holiday song immediately situate the drama in the context of the Great Depression. Picture begins with the placement of Johnny’s coffin at Ray’s living room, surrounded by huge bouquets of flowers from both desirable and undesirable elements of the community. In a rather labyrinthine narrative, based on lengthy flashbacks, Ferrara and writer St. John unfold the multi-generational saga of the Tempios, a family torn apart by a tradition of violence and revenge that began with their Italian immigrant ancestors.

Though intimate and close to each other, the three brothers are very different in their personalities, politics, and approach to life. The strongest, most rational–and also most coolly cruel–of the three, Nick contrasts sharply with both the temperamentally moody, violence-prone Chez and with Johnny, the most charming brother, who’s committed to leftist politics.

The novelty here is Ferrara’s greater concern for women, who are also vastly different. Nick is married to Jeanette (Annabella Sciorra), a bright, educated woman unafraid to express her opinions even when they diverge from her hubby’s. In contrast, Chez’ spouse, Clara (Isabella Rossellini), is a quietly sensitive, long-suffering wife. Handsome Johnny is engaged to the shy and beautiful Helen (Gretchen Mol), though it doesn’t prevent him from fooling with other women.

Dramatically, the film revolves around the mystery of who shot Johnny and his brothers’ almost animalistic determination to avenge his death. But the surface structure feels like an excuse for telling a saga that’s far more grave and ambitious than just a routine revenge yarn. Prime murder suspect is Gaspare (Del Toro in another impressive turn), as Johnny was having an indiscreet affair with his wife. And 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, what’s “fair” justice–and to what extent it’s possible to terminate the curse of evil after generations of living and breathing a violent crime life.

In the past, Ferrara’s work often showed inability to harness his eccentric artistic impulses to the service of a coherent, emotionally resonant story. But not here: The chief achievement of The Funeral is that it displays a more mature and grounded filmmaking. The new film 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 a much more solid and substantial work–it’s Ferrara’s attempt to make a Godfather movie, on a modest scale and without Coppola’s epic vision and visual grandeur.

All this sounds more exciting than “The Funeral” actually is, for after an excellent beginning, the film starts to drag and slow pacing of mid-section makes it a tad too dreary and solemn for its own good. Nonetheless, the last half an hour is particularly strong, as it clarifies Ferrara’s goal in taking a seemingly routine genre item, and then subverting one by one its most recognizable conventions.  The film’s shocking closure is downbeat but powerful and perfectly congruent with the logic of the story and its characters.

As could be expected, the male cast is uniformly distinguished, with standout work from Penn, Gallo, and De Toro. Embodying the central and most complex role, Walken shines throughout, especially in the scene in which he confronts his brother’s killer. In the female cast, Sciorra is excellent as the outspoken wife, who may possess a better understanding than the men around her of the viciously inherent nature of violence. Sans makeup, the beautiful Rossellini continues to show her improvement as a dramatic actress.

Charles Lagola’s resourceful production design, careful location work by lenser Ken Kelsch, and period costumes by Mindy Eshelman, contribute to a faithfully authentic sense of time and place.

For many critics, Ferrara is a moment-by-moment director who can frighten, amuse, astound, but can’t pull a whole movie together. Ferrara creates startling scenes of sordid life–wild parties, decadent sex, joyful killings–but the sequential presentation of events seems arbitrary and the drama is vaguely developed, lacking narrative momentum.



Ray – Christopher Walken
Chez –Chris Penn
Johnny – Vincent Gallo
Gaspare – Benicio Del Toro
Jeanette – Annabella Sciorra
Clara – Isabella Rossellini
Helen – Gretchen Mol
Sali – John Ventimiglia
Ghouly –
Paul Hipp



An October Films release.

Produced by Mary Kane, Executive producers, Michael Chambers, Patrick Panzarella.

Co-producer, Randy Sabusawa.

Directed by Abel Ferrara.

Screenplay, Nicholas St. John.