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Movie Review

'Funeral': Gangster Film as Greek Tragedy

November 08, 1996|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Abel Ferrara's "The Funeral" takes us down the familiar mean streets of the period gangster picture as if we hadn't been there many times before.

Ferrara and his frequent co-writer, Nicholas St. John, typically match extreme ferocity (and some raunchy sex) with an extraordinary complexity of character and intricacy of plot. In fact, it's safe to say that in the American cinema, there's never been a gangster movie quite like this dark, dense and intimate film.

Ferrara and St. John have transformed the Mafia melodrama of revenge into Greek tragedy with such precision and compactness that you'd think they'd designed the film with Aristotle's Poetics in hand.

"They're criminals because they've never risen above their heartless, illiterate upbringing. There's nothing romantic about them," Jean Tempio (Annabella Sciorra) tells the pretty, stunned blond fiancee (Gretchen Mol), describing Jean's 22-year-old brother-in-law Johnny (Vincent Gallo).

His corpse is laid out in a coffin in Jean's parlor in her comfortable Victorian home on a pleasant Yonkers street. Johnny had been gunned down as he left a movie palace, where he'd been fascinated by Humphrey Bogart in "The Petrified Forest" (1936).

We quickly learn that Johnny's fate is not surprising, as his funeral ceremony triggers the flashback memories of his older brothers Ray (Christopher Walken), who runs the Tempios' union protection racket, and Chez (Chris Penn), a saloonkeeper.

Johnny is something of an intellectual who observes that "the American tragedy is the need for distraction" and, more important, he's a Communist who in the depths of the Depression has come to believe the Tempio family has an outright duty to protect the unions. But a rival gangster, Gaspare (Benicio del Toro), proposes that for $1,000 a month, the Tempios should ease up on protecting the workers at a factory whose owner is eager to make some drastic layoffs because of hard times. Johnny won't hear of it.

When Johnny is gunned down, his brothers and their gang naturally assume that Gaspare or one of his men did it, especially when they learn that Johnny had been having a torrid affair with Gaspare's wife.

But what if Gaspare didn't do it, didn't even know that his wife was two-timing him with Johnny? The point is that the Tempios have been conditioned to regard revenge as a sacred duty ever since their father ordered 13-year-old Ray, as a rite of passage--the father even compares it to a bar mitzvah--to shoot dead a man who had done the Tempios harm, as the brothers looked on.

"The Funeral" thus becomes a study of the characters of Ray and Chez under extreme pressure to avenge their brother's honor.

Ray, who prides himself on his cool control and unassailable authority, nevertheless remarks--peering into his brother's coffin--that Johnny's gotten "a good break." Ray and Chez are in thrall to a conflicting mix of fraternal grief, Catholic guilt and Mafioso sense of pride and duty--a mix that is causing the emotional Chez escalating torment and confusion.

Although many gangster pictures are intent on depicting their criminals as dumb thugs, "The Funeral" presents the three brothers as men capable of the kind of reflection that provides no solace and shows Johnny and Ray to be men of clearly superior intelligence, mired in deadly family traditions and obligations.

The insightful portrayals by Walken, Penn and Gallo as the Tempios are matched by Sciorra as a woman whose two years of college provides her with a painful awareness and by Isabella Rossellini as Chez's devoted old-country wife.

Del Toro might well have fashioned his Gaspare in homage of Paul Muni in "Scarface," so closely does he resemble Muni in appearance and demeanor. Indeed, if you could say that "Scarface" was the Borgias set down in Chicago, as Howard Hawks described his 1932 classic, then "The Funeral" might be described as the House of Atreus moved to the Yonkers of 60 years ago.

* MPAA rating: R, for strong, crude sex scenes, strong language and violence. Times guidelines: The film is far too intense and graphic in regard to violence, sex and language for children.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

'The Funeral'

Christopher Walken: Ray Tempio

Chris Penn: Chez Tempio

Annabella Sciorra: Jean Tempio

Isabella Rossellini: Clara Tempio

Vincent Gallo: Johnny Tempio

Benicio del Toro: Gaspare

An October Films presentation. Director Abel Ferrara. Producer Mary Kane. Executive producers Michael Chambers, Patrick Panzarella. Screenplay by Nicholas St. John. Cinematographer Ken Kelsch. Editors Bill Pankow, Mayin Lo. Costumes Mindy Eshelman. Music Joe Delia, featuring the Chez Lounge Band (Ron Thomas, Jonathan Sigel, Michael Burrelle, and [Killer] Joe Delia). Production designer Charles Lagola. Art director Beth Curtis. Set decorator Diane Lederman. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes.

* At the AMC Century 14, Century City, (310) 553-8900, the Monica 4-Plex, 1332 2nd St., Santa Monica, (310) 394-9741, and the Town Center 4, Bristol at Anton, South Coast Plaza, Costa Mesa, (714) 751-4184.

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