(Air Date: Week Of 11/06/96)
In The Funeral, director Abel Ferrara, who made King of New York and Bad Lieutenant, delivers death, pure and simple. The tone and story are darkly reminescent of The Godfathers, with smalltime gangsters replacing the high rollers, but the emphasis isn't on suspense or action -- it's on character -- or rather, pathology of character.
It's the Depression era in New York City. In the opening, we hear Billy Holiday singing Gloomy Sunday, and then we see the youngest of the three Tiempo brothers, Johnny, lying in a casket in his oldest brother's living room. Johnny, played by Vincent Gallo, was murdered as he exited a movie theatre. Women are wailing, and, brother Ray, played by Christopher Walken, is eerily deadpan. "He looks good," he tells the makeup guy who touches up Johnny's eyebrows, but this remark, which could have provided comic relief in another film, just draws us deeper into the pathology of this family clan.
The middle brother, Chez, played by Chris Penn of Reservoir Dogs, sobs uncontrollably at the coffin, hugging his young son, but before you can say wild mood swing, he's screaming and punching the corpse in the chest. Isabella Rosellini's performance as Chez's wife, Clara, is a study in tortured love.
Well, Vincent Gallo wouldn't have had much of a role as the dead Johnny, except that the initial two-thirds of the film flashes back to events leading up to his murder. He was the idealistic brother, and a Communist Party sympathiser. When the dandified gangster Gaspare, played by Benicio Del Toro of Basquiat, goes to brother Chez's bar to ask the Tiempos not to bother a businessman who's laying off union workers, Johnny doesn't want to go along. The scene swings from gaiety, with the now manic Chez singing and dancing for the crowd, to Gaspare's horrendously cruel murder of one of Johnny's friends outside the bar.
So who kills Johnny? Ray's detached, but caring, wife, played by Annabella Sciorra, tries to convince him not to seek revenge, but this would be going against his genetic encoding -- he says, "When I'm dead, I'm gonna roast in hell. I believe that. The trick is to get used to it." The last part of the movie is pure vengeance, and the ending shocks while, at the same time, logically springing from what we know about the Tiempo brothers' character.
The Funeral is a finely crafted example of story telling, with strong writing and acting, behind it, but ultimately there's a hollow, unreal quality to all this grim and somber stuff. You're never in the grip of anything resembling sorrow and pity. And isn't that the point of being put through such turmoil? Only recommended if you're in the mood for something gratuitously jagged on the palate.
Copyright 1996 Mary Weems
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