In Bad Lieutenant—arguably Abel Ferrara’s most notorious film—Harvey Keitel refers to Jesus Christ as a “rat fuck.”
This may be the most glaring instance of something that is blatantly littered across Ferrara’s forty-plus year career: a cockeyed and knowingly sacrilegious approach to his Catholic faith. A nun is brutally raped in Bad Lieutenant (1992) and Keitel is the man sent to find her assailants. Yet he himself is not free of sin—in his own way, he is deeply morally compromised. In one of the film’s most affecting scenes, he lies prostate at the altar of a church, throwing himself on the mercy of a God he feels has abandoned him. He’s far from an outlier among Ferrara’s protagonists, but he is a redeemed one by the conclusion: he finds a shred of mercy for himself by extending it to others.
Still, rarely do the protagonists of American independent film come across as so tortured and so difficult to forgive. Christopher Walken’s villainous drug kingpin Frank White in King of New York (1990) or the psychosexual trauma of Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant are also both deeply masculine in their unique psychosis—they use their maleness as a weapon against those around them.
Anyone even fleetingly familiar with Ferrara knows that his interest in Catholicism hardly equates to piousness. In fact, Ferrara’s career began with hardcore pornography, moved into exploitation horror with The Driller Killer (1979) and rape-revenge fantasy with Ms. 45 (1981), and has continually reckoned with sexual violence ever since. His protagonists have been junkies, gangsters, corrupt cops, and vampires of both the literal and metaphorical persuasion. His parallel fascinations with sin, guilt, and redemptive suffering is often heavily apparent.
The nocturnal sleaze of his settings—usually urban, most often boroughs of New York —are also tinged with religious iconography. In his most famed works—Bad Lieutenant, King of New York—there’s a familiar gleam of neon light and rain-drizzled car windows, augmented by a camera that often spins in circular or overhead shots. These are Dante’s Circles of Hell made spatially alive: Ferrara’s cityscape is a hypnotic and frenzied place without respite.
(This is not to say Ferrara has a house style, for he has a seamless ability to shift dependent on his material. His hyper-rarefied portrait of NYC’s 1% in Welcome to New York is glossy and pristine, while his burnished ‘30s period piece The Funeral is as stately and classical in appearance as a Francis Ford Coppola film.)
Although there’s little to link them aesthetically, thematically Ferrara shares some traits with French master and fellow Catholic Robert Bresson. Bresson, too, seemed to have a crisis of faith later in his career.There are shimmers of uncertainty in a religious allegory like Au hasard Balthasar (1966), but it hardly seems the same filmmaker given the nearly-nihilistic worldview of his L’argent (1983). Ferrara has a similar tendency, with the redemptive qualities of his earlier films often eclipsed by total self-immolation in his latter ones.
Since 2011, Ferrara’s recent feature films have been dogged by a sort of godless solipsism. His three since then—4:44 Last Day on Earth (2011), Welcome to New York (2014), and Pasolini (2014)—are wildly different stories that converge mostly in their sense of overwhelming doom. Welcome to New York is a loosely fictionalized account of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn rape scandal. Ferrara fixes a piercing gaze on the depravity of the man played with grotesque menace by Gerard Depardieu, and although he faces a public and legal reckoning for his crime he remains unrepentant.
Pasolini is a biopic of sorts, focusing on the last days of Italian filmmaker who was found brutally murdered under uncertain circumstances in 1975. Willem Dafoe stars in this role as a deeply conflicted and hyper-intelligent artist whose sexual life is at odds with his political and religious upbringing; in politics, he seeks to dismantle power dynamics, while his life is both antithetical to the Catholic faith (he’s gay) and to his Marxist ideology (he takes advantage of much poorer, much younger men). His ego makes him a hypocrite, and his “murder” almost feels something like a capitulation on his part. This is where the thought of redemption seems to sputter and fall short. “No one wants to be saved. No one,” Depardieu’s character tells his psychiatrist. The characters of this triptych face their fates with relative indifference, seemingly at peace with their place in the moral universe, regardless of their sins.
4.44 Last Day on Earth is the most curiously meditative of the bunch, providing an antithesis to Ferrara’s more frenetic work. Self-annihilation is traded for a more traditional and literal apocalypse, where the entire earth is going to burn to a crisp at precisely 4:44 that morning. But it’s very slow on action, or even in pre-apocalyptic social breakdown. Instead, Willem Dafoe and his girlfriend, played by Shanyn Leigh, face the inevitable with relative indifference, finding solace in the finality of their situation and in each other’s bodies amidst the comfortable bubble of their Manhattan apartment. It is cloistered and quiet in contrast to the usual hustle and crush of the city streets, and Ferrara’s camera stops circling and darting, for the most part, finding a degree of stillness. This is a mature work, less writhing with torment than his other films. There’s no less sin and suffering and despair, but perhaps there’s a cold comfort in the fact that there’s maybe no one out there to answer to for it, either.
For several years now, Ferrara has been a practicing Buddhist. Still, if the director has left his Catholic faith behind him, it seems like a thing that has never fully retracted its claws. In a New York magazine interview from 2012, Ferrara was discussing Welcome to New York. Asked about the nastiness of the film’s protagonist, his response was Catholic to the core: “With all the stuff I’ve done, I should cast the first stone?”