Abel Ferrara’s brooding gangster drama is almost certainly the director’s classiest movie. Which isn’t to say it’s not filled with bloody violence, explicit sex, vicious language and mountains of Catholic angst, but the top-draw cast and general restraint that the director displays here places this 1996 movie well away from those unhinged Ferrara favourites of the era - Bad Lieutenant, Dangerous Game and The Blackout.
The film opens deep in the Depression of the 1930s, a few days before the funeral of young gangster Johnny Tempio (Vincent Gallo). Johnny is the young, firebrand brother to established New York mafiosi Ray and Chez Tempio (Christopher Walken and Chris Penn), who recently entered into a deal with a factory owner to aid his cause and offer protection to non-union workers who have chosen to break the strike. This move does not sit easily with Johnny, a recent convert to communism, and his loud mouth (and wandering eye) soon bring him into conflict with rival mobster Gaspare (Benicio Del Toro). Days later, Johnny is gunned down in broad daylight outside a movie theatre.
Written with Ferrara’s regular collaborator Nicholas St. John, The Funeral does establish a mystery early on – who shot Johnny, and why? – and while much of the film is presented in flashback, charting Johnny's last few days, it quickly becomes clear that the director is far less interested in answering this question than exploring the effect of his death on his brothers and their families. Although Gaspare is set up as the most obvious culprit (indeed, it is Ray’s first presumption), it doesn’t really matter whether he is or not; Johnny’s radical politics and brave/stupid habit of speaking his mind were going to get him killed sooner or later anyway.
Much of The Funeral’s power lies in the acting of Walken and Penn. Ray handles the death better than Chez – older and less inclined to act upon his instincts, he has a quiet weariness about him, and a resignation about his own fate. Nevertheless, the appeals of his wife Jean (Annabella Sciorra) not to seek revenge and endanger their family fall on deaf ears – Ray fully believes he is destined for hell anyway, whatever course his life now takes. Chez’s grief is less hidden, and Johnny’s death is pretty much the final straw for this man tormented constantly by rage, guilt and alcohol. And yet unlike Jean, his wife Clara (Isabella Rossellini) truly loves her husband, and is desperate for him to seek some kind of religious therapy before it’s too late. Walken and the late Penn play to their strengths here, and if their performances are of the sort we’ve seen before, it doesn’t stop them from being amongst their very best.
With only 90 minutes to play with and considerable moral and theological depth, it’s not that surprising that The Funeral feels less well developed in other areas. The Tempio brothers’ relationships with big business and the unions is never really explained, and the characters of both Johnny and Gaspare – despite striking turns from Gallo and Del Toro – remains sketchily drawn. Johnny in particular seems a fascinating figure – part immature thug, part passionate intellectual – and it’s shame that St. John and Ferrara don’t spend longer exploring how this gangster found himself attending Communist Party meetings and passionately speaking up for the rights of the working man.
Nevertheless, this is a tough, intense film of considerable power. Ferrara’s low-key approach to much of the material pays off when the film does explode into violence – usually involving Chris Penn’s character – while Joe Delia’s mournful score and the muted photography evoke both the sombre mood and the economically-troubled era very well. The unsurprisingly tragic ending may seem a little forced, but in many ways it’s the only apt way to close a film that is so concerned with matters of moral redundancy, fate and loss.
1990's King of New York was a return to form, while the searing Bad Lieutenant quickly became the most notorious, and perhaps best, film of Ferrara's career. The nineties proved to be the director's busiest decade, as he dabbled in intense psycho-drama (Dangerous Game, The Blackout), gangster movies (The Funeral), sci-fi (Body Snatchers, New Rose Hotel) and horror (The Addiction). He continued to turn in little-seen but interesting work, such as the urban drug drama 'R Xmas and the religious allegory Mary until his higher profile returned with the likes of Welcome to New York and Pasolini.