Today’s topic: spirituality in Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant. If you think about it in the last twenty years the cinema industry must have spit out at least two dozen films dedicated to either the life and death of Jesus, the life and death of Moses, or the life and death of Noah. In other words, religiosity has always been a subject that’s been tackled countless times since the early beginnings of cinema. The first big “blockbuster” movies of the 1920s were in fact, movies that told the different stories hidden in the Bible, with directors like Cecil B. DeMille attached to star and direct and attract thousands of viewers. These tales of good and righteousness were meant to teach and inspire, lead the way toward the right path. Nowadays religious films seem to be made for the simple reason to make lots of money (Exodus: Gods and Kings, I’m looking at you) and experiment with new technology. Once it was all about passion and love (Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ, a project he envisioned for almost 25 years), and people went to see these movies to appreciate the message and the art behind it. Now, in 1992 a small independent movie came out from one of the few controversial figures in today’s cinema still well and kicking. Abel Ferrara studied spirituality by creating one of the most intoxicating and sick characters of all time: Bad Lieutenant.
It’s a great start. Confronting religion with madness, because that’s what LT (he has no name) represents: pure madness. As a man with a police badge he can do whatever he damn wants to do, be it: shoot up a grocery store, steal a bag of coke off a crime scene, gamble his own life, smoke crack on a stairway, jack off in front of two girls in the middle of a street. You name it, he’s done it. Played by a never-better Harvey Keitel, LT is a towering figure amongst New York’s criminals, and yet he feels small like a worm. His existence meaningless like the few girls he bangs every night. His life wasted like the few grams of white powder he snorts every morning to keep his flow going. Yes, he’s evil, dirty, corrupt, a sad junkie, but somehow he raises his eyes when he walks into a church where a nun has been brutally raped. A crime so violent, so perverse could only take place in a sacred temple that is the church. Nothing’s been stolen, just a few shattered glasses, a torn curtain and graffiti sprayed all over the murals. Ferrara’s imagery hits like a punch to the jaw: not even a sacred place can be considered sacred in a non-sacred world. You just have to be like LT to survive.
LT likes to get stoned; that’s his only escape from New York’s underbelly, the sewage that floats around him, the demons that try to take over his sick mind. From a group sex scene, Ferrara cuts to a naked LT, walking around the room, coked out of his mind, his eyes closed, whimpering to himself with his arms raised like Jesus on the crucifix. Is he trying to beg for forgiveness? In some way, yes he does, but he’s not yet capable of phrasing his thoughts and let the Lord know that deep down he’s a sorry little child. Instead, he sobers up, puts on a fresh pair of clothes and goes driving in the night. On his way home, he stops two girls driving without a license with their father’s borrowed car. LT after a long discussion with the two sisters that happen to be a little high too, decides to let them go only if one of them lifts up her skirt and the other looks at him while he masturbates. Sure, controversy at its finest. Instead of looking at this perverted scene someone would simply glance at, let’s try to connect it with the overall theme of spirituality. LT believes there is a God, but since God’s been absent on the New York streets at night, letting innocent people die, then why should he pay attention to a cop jerking off in front of two beautiful girls? That’s the point of the situation. Fear and rush. LT does it quickly because in all honesty, he’s scared. Scared of being caught by the higher authority. Scared of slowing down. His whole life has been an endless rush, so why stop now? Such pleasures are to be savored quickly.
After a gambling bet goes wrong, LT knows he must get ready for what’s awaiting him. He remembers the nun. Yes. With a swig of rum and two lines of coke in his system, he drives up to the church and finds the same nun down on her knees, praying. Ferrara with the use of a simple handheld camera (like most of the film shot in 18 days on a very low budget) manages to frame the image of the bad cop and the nun on their knees one to close to another like a sacred painting. Is it possible that a man who’s been corrupt his whole life can even touch a “clean” nun? Can a man like LT kneel down and look up at the crucified Jesus? Can he? LT turns to the nun and asks her where he can find the rapists which for sure he’s going to kill. To his surprise the nun says “I forgive them.” ” You forgive them?! Those guys put out cigarette butts on your–” The woman means it. She looks into his eyes and sees a man who wants to do good for the first time in his life. A man who’s looking for one last chance. It’s not about gambling anymore. Not about drugs either. It’s about living the right life for just a single moment.
The cop hallucinates, and as the nun leaves him on his knees, like the miserable animal he is, Jesus himself appears in front of him. He stands there, silent. Ferrara writes this scene beautifully; every viewer can relate to LT’s anger, anger that leads to his yelling out in tears: “Where the fuck were you?! I’m sorry, Lord. I’ve done so many bad things.” It may sound simple but it’s bigger than life. The word resonate inside the dimly lit church and Jesus doesn’t make a sound, letting the cop tumble onto the floor, punching himself and crying.
And with a scene like that, Ferrara makes a religious movie out of a perverted crime story, presenting us with a character that is not worth anything anymore. He never was.