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.
Today’s topic: the scariest film I’ve ever seen. Nope, don’t count on hearing anything related to the Horror genre. Of course early Horror movies were revolutionary in the way they managed to effectively stun the audience with their complex visual effects, at the time they were impressive filmmaking achievements. Movies like Psycho, The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween gave birth and later on inspired hundreds of flat sequels and hideous follow-ups, losing their magical scary touch. They feel outdated. And yes, as an avid cinephile I waited for a scary non-Horror to appear on screen. I waited. And I waited. Finally, last year, it hit the mark. I found it – Nightcrawler.
Not only my favorite film of last year but also a film that has become one of my top personal favorites. What’s so scary about it? Nothing, besides the main story, that of a petty thief who discovers night-crime journalism as a way of making money. With the help of a camcorder and a police scanner he goes anywhere where blood is spilled. Ain’t that a kick in the head? His name is Louis Bloom, he prefers Lou, and he’s a sociopath. Now, now, he’s not a psycho. He doesn’t take baths in a tub filled with blood and doesn’t go around shooting presidents. He’s a sociopath with a camera, and he’s ready to sell whatever he catches, be it a bloody stabbing or a home invasion, it doesn’t matter. That’s what’s so scary.
I know I’m not here to make a review out of this movie, but for those who haven’t seen it I have two words: Jake Gyllenhaal. Jake is a coyote, fit and skinny, his eyes haunting, his veins pulsating. He is Lou Bloom and he is a sociopath. Lou’s fascinated with his new job, first a bit untrained and unprofessional, with a banged up car and a cheap camcorder with no microphone. But it’s Los Angeles, right? Anything’s possible for people like Lou. What am I getting at? Lou learns police codes by heart, finds a naive assistant (a great Riz Ahmed) who’ll do anything for a few bucks, buys modern equipment, a new car and above all, he forms a business relationship with a worn out local news director (Rene Russo you got it) who is ready to pay any price just to keep her name alive in the news industry. For some the setting alone might seem scary: night-time Los Angeles, no Hollywood Boulevard, no sunny avenues and great looking palm trees; instead, a dark, claustrophobic polluted bloody machine that is the land of gold for hungry coyotes who wish to feast on rotten cadavers. Unlike the overcrowded streets in Taxi Driver’s New York, here the streets of Los Angeles are almost empty, the wind free to blow wherever it wants to. A perfect place for nocturnal animals.
The music. The music by James Newton Howard is for a fact, creepy. You may ask why. It depicts Lou’s state of mind. Whenever he’s angry, the music changes. Whenever he’s onto something, the music changes. Whenever he goes crazy, the music changes. The unnerving feeling that we’re inside a sick individual’s mind will give anybody some proper goose bumps. And why not? Lou smiles when he records a victim. Blood makes him excited up to the point where he starts treating the material he’s shooting as a form of art. A car accident is a set for him, a dead body the actor. Lou’s the director, and a hell of a one too. We witness as Lou, with great exhilaration, notices that the police cars haven’t yet arrived, and decides to ‘modify’ the accident scene for artistic purposes, moving a cadaver from one side to another, adjusting the lifeless’ hands, straightening the cold legs, and finally getting to the top of a curb and filming it, adrenaline pumping through his eyeballs. That’s what crime-journalism is about. That’s what this movie is about – people who become animals and yet go unnoticed, hiding in the dark, away from the light.
Dan Gilroy’s first attempt at directing is spot on. It’s simplistic but effective, because again, it impersonates Lou’s persona: unpredictable. Floating across the neon lights of LA at night, switching to postcard views and cutting to fast paced car chases, Gilroy encapsulates the essence of a blood soaked world that we see every single day in the news, and almost every single time we ignore it. A world where anything and everything can be made up from a ‘carjacking crime wave’ to a ‘stabbing pollution’. A world where advertisements are taken too seriously. A world where only with the help of a camcorder and a police scanner can we succeed in making a name for ourselves.
The scariest part? The irony. The script is filled with past faced dialogue, machine gun comebacks and tasty ideas, painting a grim picture with a cherry on top – irony. The whole movie pokes fun in a very cruel way at who we are and how we deal with things. It pokes fun at a society that believes too many theories and disregards the truth. Coyotes like Lou go unnoticed and end up with a full belly. It’s the raw truth that scares me, personally. It’s the thought that people like Lou walk the streets like the rest of us. Lou Bloom is a monster but a monster you learn to root for. Yes, that’s right. Every time I watch it, by the end of the film I find myself cheering for Lou because he’s got everything planned out, he’s always compact, neat and precise. He never blinks, never sweats over anything. That’s what makes him so haunting – the fact that we don’t see him break aside from a riveting few seconds, when after a flop of a night without any headline material, the man confronts his reflection in the mirror, yelling and shattering the glass to pieces. No worries. He’s got everything under control, that’s the thing. Can we call him a criminal? No. He doesn’t kill anyone. He doesn’t lift a finger nor hurt anyone. Lou is simply at the right time, at the right place, with the right ideas. He’s the man.
“Think of our newscast as a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut”
Today’s topic: the beauty of The Great Beauty. Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film of 2013, Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty keeps being praised as the new work of art comparable to Federico Fellini’s vision. The city, the characters, the slow meandering, it all adds up. However to me, Sorrentino has his own voice. Sure, without Fellini’s La Dolce Vita or Otto e Mezzo there wouldn’t be such a visible inspiration in Sorrentino’s film. Still, I stand my opinion that The Great Beauty is an animal of its own, rare kind. It’s more than just a self study of aging and finding the lost reason for living. It’s more than just a depiction of Rome as the center of all the parties, all the lust and richness of the world. It’s the search for hidden beauty and forgotten values. It’s a rediscovery of our civilization.
Jep Gambardella is getting old. His chain smoking is not helping. His life of parties and quick romantic nights is getting repetitive. Jep is 65. He’s published one single book, forty years earlier. It was hailed as a masterpiece. For Jep it was more than a work of literature. He didn’t really know what he was writing about, even if the rest of the world did. He couldn’t find the right amount of inspiration after that, and as he puts it; there’ve been too many parties in his life. He wasn’t a simple participant, he was the creator of parties: “I wanted to have the power to make the parties fail”. He’s been king of the nightlife forever. And yet, as he turns 65, he remembers the subtle feeling of sensibility he once had, and like that… it hits him again. The empty feeling in your soul, telling you to wake up. Jep finally has his eyes wide open, in search of something. Sorrentino tells this story by establishing Rome as the capital of the universe. It’s a city that’s always alive, it’s a city that represents our identities. It’s got culture, history, religion, crime, drug use, prostitution. It’s the world itself packed into one single location. Jep roams around this forest, still after all these years, unknown to him. For all these years he pretended to be someone he’s not. The reason was Jep’s broken heart.
Jep discovers a whole new world by day. He sees people jogging, old timers drinking morning coffee, children running to school, and in one particular scene he contemplates a group of nuns. Religion’s been missing from Jep’s a long time now. He has forgotten the clean feeling you have in your heart after your long awaited confession. In fact, The Great Beauty is partly about spirituality, and how sometimes we should be confident and believe that we’re not alone, because sometimes life rocks us to the bone. Sometimes life can be cruel. Sometimes we, on our very own, are not strong enough. Like Jep’s friend’s son; a troubled young man who struggles living in an empty home, without a father, without a present mother. Served by maids and babysitters. He finds the final answer to all his sufferings in a quick death. But The Great Beauty is not about that. A lot of critics and viewers have been saying how Sorrentino’s film focuses on the presence of death in our lives. Personally, I think the opposite. It’s a celebration of life, and what is life? It’s the ship that carries us on the open sea and sometimes stumbles because of the storm. But life can be peaceful, full of pleasures and joy. Its sweet taste can only be fully savoured once we sink our teeth into it.
“Why haven’t you written another book?” asks an old nun. Jep replies: “I was busy looking for the great beauty. I never found it.” But it’s never too late. And that’s what drives Sorrentino’s work to be what it is. It’s a film about hope. Life seems short to Jep because of all the nights he can’t remember, the women he stopped counting, the useless interviews he’s been writing to keep his name alive. It comes to a point when Jep decides he has to stop doing things he doesn’t want to do. He contemplates true friendship with a middle aged stripper, Ramona. She doesn’t know where the wind will blow either. Together, they attend a funeral, where Jep cries. It’s the tears that have gathered over the years and can finally be released at a rightful moment. It’s the inner pain that has been cutting deeper and deeper into Jep’s heart. “It felt good not to make love” says Jep after a sleep-over with Ramona. That’s part of self-discovery. You find out that there’s more to yourself than just what you’ve been hearing from others the whole time. It feels right to let it all out and at the same time let it all in. And Rome, beautiful as it is, it’s a place that keeps inviting tourists and releasing the locals. Jep’s best friend leaves, showing Jep a world of emptiness. At parties he hears nothing other than gossip and self-conscious conversations. Ego, ego, ego. Rome is filled with people, young and old, wanting to become writers, actors, stars really. Glamour and fame. It’s superficial. Jep knows it. In fact, in the hidden corners of the capital Jep studies what’s being ignored most of the time; children laughing, a fisherman smiling, a bartender chatting with his customers, birds migrating, lovers kissing passionately. Step by step it becomes clearer and clearer: it’s the unnoticed part of life that is the definite proof that real beauty exists. Beauty that is always there, in loss and destruction, a kind of beauty, which Jep finally finds and embraces.
True beauty is simple. True beauty is not flashy. It’s not on the main cover of Vogue. It’s not a beauty contest or a modern art exhibition. It’s a simple breath that fills out your lungs. It gets you higher than the sky.