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FUNERAL, THE(director: Abel Ferrara; screenwriter: Nicholas St. John; cinematographer: Ken Kelsch; editors: Bill Pankow/Mayin Lo; cast: Christopher Walken (Ray Tempio), Chris Penn (Chez Tempio), Vincent Gallo (Johnny Tempio), Isabella Rossellini (Clara Tempio), Annabella Sciorra (Jean Tempio), Benicio del Toro (Gaspare), Gretchen Mol (Helen), John Ventimiglia (Sali), Victor Argo (Julius), Paul Hipp (Ghouly); Runtime: 99; Guild/October/MDP/C&P; 1996)
“The picture works despite the bizarre ending because it is gritty…”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

“The Funeral” is a thinking man’s “Godfather,” where the gangster brothers try to analyze their motives in simplistic intellectual terms as they try to understand why their lives are so twisted. The film is set in the late 1930s in New York, as it opens with the slain youngest Tempio brother, the 22-year-old Johnny (Gallo), shown in a casket in his older brother’s house. Ray (Walken) is the eldest and is considered to be the methodical leader who is always serenely calculating in his approach to life, accepting the fact that he is already doomed to rot in hell and that there is nothing that he can do about it. Chez (Penn) is the bartender brother with the hot-temper who gets hysterical by the side of the coffin and has to be calmed by Ray, and has severe mood swings as if he were mentally unbalanced.

The wives of the brothers act with quiet dignity and will be the counterpoints to the evil men: Jean (Annabella) is the religious wife of Ray, who proudly says she reads books and went two years to college before she married and raised their two kids. Clara (Rossellini) is the loving wife of Chez, who always looks for the good qualities in her violent husband. Helen (Mol) is the girlfriend of the womanizing Johnny, who says little but acts as if she really cares that Johnny got shot. The family is more complex than a mob family has a right to be and the philosophical lines they spout in this slow-moving, almost action-less film, for this genre, sometimes seems bizarre but has a strange pull to it as their lives begin to unravel at the funeral.

Ferrara employs a puzzling flashback style to the film, which begins to use flashbacks upon viewing Johnny’s body, covering the recent events that led up to his death. It also goes back to Ray’s childhood and shows how he had little choice but to follow in his father’s gangster footsteps, as he is asked at thirteen to prove his manhood by executing a man his father says needs to be taught a lesson. This family is doomed a priest tells them, unless they change their ways and learn how to pray to God. They seem to twist the religious experiences and rituals around, to fit morbidly into their way of life.

Revenge is on the mind of Ray, as he ignores his wife’s pleas to forget about his brother’s killing. But, before he gets his revenge, he wants to know what happened to Johnny. In the flashback, we see Johnny attending a communist meeting and working for the commies by intimidating the bosses and hijacking trucks and stirring up worker unrest. The only difference between him and his brothers is that he sympathizes with the workers, while they will work for whomever pays them the most.

Johnny’s taste in women is shown to be strange, as he is seen in a whorehouse choosing a fat, elderly, overweight madam, rather than one of the good-looking prostitutes.

Chez also has his quirks. He feels genuinely sorry for a young prostitute and offers to give her $5 to walk away from this life and save her soul, but she greedily asks for $10 and he gives her $20. He ends up telling her she will be a prostitute the rest of her life, that she has just sold her soul. He, thereby, has rough sex with her, as he has lost interest in saving her life.

In the obscure flashbacks, we learn of another mobster the brothers have business connections with, Gaspare (Benicio). He killed Johnny’s womanizing friend Ghouly (Hipp), over a macho insult in Chez’s bar. He has hired the brothers to protect one of the bosses. But Johnny resisted the idea of working for the bosses and, on top of that, Johnny is screwing Gaspare’s wife three times a week. So, naturally, Ray suspects that Gaspare had Johnny whacked and his men bring him over for questioning, as he stands over him with an ax. He soon realizes that Gaspare couldn’t have done it, but his criminal instincts tell him to kill him anyway that the man would never forget this insult if he spared him.

The film refuses to have a traditional type of gangster payback; the one who killed Johnny is stuffed in a freezer by Ray’s men, until Ray arrives to question him. The youngster is a mechanic and claims that Johnny raped his girlfriend, but Ray is not satisfied with that answer and before killing him he has a driving need to find out the truth. This is the most powerful scene in the film and it is brilliantly accomplished.

But the film can’t end on that prosaic note, this film is heading down a more philosophical and Catholic path, as the end is so unexpected and makes so little sense, no matter how you try to explain it, that we can only guess what the director means. The picture works despite the bizarre ending.

Chris Penn’s performance earned him the “Best Supporting Actor” award at the 1996 Venice Film Festival and the film won the special jury prize. But I didn’t think he was something special, as much as he gave the film energy. The Gallo character, despite a lot of attention placed on it, is never uncovered and his performance only seemed adequate. He has a great line, though, where he says, “Life is pointless without the movies.” I thought the glue to this film was Walken’s mesmerizing performance, who is able to say with a straight face “that the flaw in a criminal’s character, is that he is not trustworthy.” He and his wife are the only characters that I really felt for, who seemed to be touching something deep down. Annabella Sciorra descries her life, wallowing in Catholic guilt, saying that these criminals should not be glorified, they have never risen above their heartless and limited upbringing. That is the message Ferrara brings with this anti-gangster gangster film. He digresses to talk about other topics such as capitalism and sexual kinkiness, but only in a cursory way.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”