News from the Locarno Festival

Revenge, dogma and sin: All of Abel’s demons

Revenge, dogma and sin: All of Abel’s demons



Artist’s demons. The ones that spin in the mind of a director like horses on a merry-go-round. The ones that determine not just the eternal return of a dense poetic nub, but also the director’s own personal style. So it is for Abel Ferrara, the recipient of the Pardo d’onore Swisscom at Locarno 64.

Rummage quickly through his extensive filmography, and a series of essential scenes immediately jump out, vividly powerful scenes able to break the tendons of the narrative and immediately become part of the collective imagination. From the madness of the artist who uses a power drill to homicidally unload his rage on everything that blocks his creativity in The Driller Killer (1979), Ferrara’s first film, to the costume party where a woman violently exacts her revenge on the male sex (Ms. 45, 1981).

The springboard is already defined: revenge, violence, sex phobic triggers and that dramatic chasm that irreparably separates the world of guilt from that of innocence. This is the natural habitat of a director like Abel Ferrara. Born into an Italian immigrant family, he was above all a son of the Bronx, where he grew up and which he carried into his big-screen visions. Certainly his is not a conciliatory and pacified cinema, but something rough that wants to hurl itself at the viewer with all the force of its aesthetic blows. Particularly when these blows hook on to the throb of philosophical-religious reflection, as in the screenplays of Ferrara’s childhood friend, Nicholas St. John.

After engaging with the gangster movie genre in King of New York, starring Christopher Walken, he moved on to his “trilogy of sin,” one of the toughest and most successful triptychs that contemporary American cinema has produced on the subject. Just to make things clear, somewhere in the region of Martin Scorsese, but with a more baroque and metaphysical trajectory, as is clear from The Bad Lieutenant (1992), in which policeman Harvey Keitel is swallowed up by a lacerating interior journey that takes him from corruption to a real kind of atonement. The expressionistic power loaded onto excesses is echoed in both Snake Eyes(1993), with its movie industry setting, and in the vampiric and nihilist world of The Addiction (1995). 

The obsession with sin, with all of the reflections on evil and free will that follow, has by now become a scaffolding on which to build a real moral tragedy, that of The Funeral (1996), about a family of gangsters avenging a murder in the 1930s. The cast features a series of first-class actors, bringing together Christopher Walken, Chris Penn, Vincent Gallo and Isabella Rossellini. As a logical consequence this dependence on actors gradually leads to breaking with every narrative determinism, especially after the end of the association with Nicholas St. John’s screenplays, leaving the intertwining of his visions freer and more contradictory.

And the ideal landing place, beyond the continuous coming and going in time between science fiction (Body Snatchers, 1993), cyberpunk (New Rose Hotel, 1998) and black comedy (Go Go Tales, 2007), could only be the spirituality of religion, confronted head on with the a Mary (2005). The return of a god-fearing actress (Juliette Binoche) to Jerusalem becomes the bomb in which all the shards of dogmas that fill mystical and secular philosophies end up painfully exploding. Grammatically unorthodox views for a cinema of conflict and impact, always finding the redemptive force to remove certainties wherever it passes. The potential of many directors might promise this, but in practice few manage to maintain it in a way that constantly wrong-foots viewers. Certainly, Abel Ferrara is one of these few.

Lorenzo Buccella

Follow us