Set during the Depression, The Funeral opens with a family, headed by the withdrawn, emotionally scarred Ray Tempio (Christopher Walken), reuniting for the funeral of his youngest brother, Johnny (Vincent Gallo). Johnny has been gunned down outside a movie theater. Although Ray suspects a rival gangster, Gaspare (Benicio del Toro), he bides his time, waiting for the appropriate time to exact revenge. Ray’s wife, Jean (Annabella Sciorra) repeatedly warns Ray about the potential consequences, both physical and metaphysical, of carrying out his plans for retribution. Chez Tempio (Christopher Penn), Ray’s other brother, operates a bar, a front for the family business. Johnny’s death has destabilized the already emotionally imbalanced, abusive, temperamental Chez. Chez’s wife, Clara (Isabella Rossellini) seems to have been relegated to the role of caretaker.
The Funeral, however, employs multiple, embedded flashbacks, centered on the funeral and its immediate aftermath, to reveal details about the various characters and their backstories. Each brother, Ray, Chez, and even Johnny, dead at the beginning of the film, are given flashbacks. Johnny’s flashbacks inexorably move toward the shooting that takes his life, but only reveals the identity of the shooter in the penultimate scene. Johnny’s flashbacks reveal a conflicted character, torn between the demands of his crime family and his obvious sympathy for union organizers. Left unresolved are questions about his sexuality. In one scene, he dispassionately watches a friend have sex with a woman. In another scene, he kisses an overage madam while his friends enjoy the pleasures of a brothel and watch a stag reel. Ray’s flashbacks turn on long-suppressed memories of his father, who, in a disturbing scene, forces his young sons to engage in violence, while teaching them the rationale behind retribution. Chez’s overlapping memories reveal a stinging self-hatred and self-abnegation. In one scene, his verbal and physical abuse of a young woman, offers the audience a glimpse of the depths of this self-hatred.
But Abel Ferrara (Body Snatchers, Bad Lieutenant, King of New York) and his longtime collaborator, Nicholas St. John, have a different narrative strategy in mind. Present-tense scenes often segue into flashbacks without clear indicators marking the shift from the present to the past. This makes the task of creating a proper chronology of events a difficult, if not an impossible, experience. At different times, Ferrara and St. John fail to provide the audience with the information or events necessary to decipher character motivation. For example, the audience is never shown the incident that directly leads to Johnny's death. While this oblique approach to narrative construction may have been a conscious decision, it also results in a frustrating, unsatisfactory experience, made all the worse when logic, coherence, and psychological realism are sacrificed for a bloody, violent denouement that does little to dispel the suspicion that Ferrara and St. John were themselves unsatisfied with the film’s natural climax. In its opening scene, The Funeral posits a straightforward question, who killed Johnny, and a corollary, what will Ray and Chez do when and if they find out the identity of the killer. With those two questions answered, The Funeral essentially has nowhere else to go. Instead, Ferrera and St. John force a second, “unnatural” ending on both the characters and the audience.
The Funeral has other, more minor shortcomings, some of them tied to the modest budget, making the 1930s setting feel incomplete. Only the cars and clothes give the audience visual cues as to the setting. Budgetary concerns may have also led Ferrara to eschew establishing shots, preferring instead to shoot the film in medium shots and close-ups. The dialogue also sounds too modern, making prodigious use of the f-word, with next to no effort to capture the vernacular of Depression-era America. Last, while Christopher Walken gives a nuanced, forceful performance, his actual age (presumably his character is meant to be a few years older than his brothers) proves to be a continual distraction, as does his modern hairstyle. Ultimately, the strong performances and a fitfully compelling storyline outweigh The Funeral's multiple flaws. The Funeral, then, will continue to be considered a second-tier gangster film (albeit one with unrealized potential).
© Mel Valentin, 24th April, 2005
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