Wednesday, August 15, 2007


BAD LIEUTENANT (1992, USA, Abel Ferrara, screenplay with Zoe Lund, Victor Argo, Paul Calderon)
Jesus said seventy times seven. A gift that makes sense ain't worth it.

The foulest movie in the book. Of all the films I’ve seen (and may well never see again), the ultimate example of how bright the slightest sliver of light can shine if the darkness is dark enough.

A nun is raped, her inner city church desecrated, and the camera never looks away. The baddest of bad cops pulls over two out-of-town teens and intimidates the driver into simulating oral sex while he masturbates beside their car. Is there any reason to see this kind of stuff?

Harvey Keitel: "I wanted to play this part because I have a deep desire to know God. Knowing God isn't just a matter of going to confession and praying. We also know God by confronting evil, and this character gave me the opportunity to descend into the most painful part of myself and learn about the dark places."

The performance is stunning, raw, naked, shameful, unashamed. Keitel’s presence in the film invokes Scorsese, though even his Catholic anguish never took us down streets so mean. This vice-ridden vice cop is beyond corrupt, he’s debauched, snorting coke off pictures of his kids’ first communion pictures. Obscenely in hawk to the bookies, he ingests every substance he can coerce from the dealers, keeping the suicidal spin going so he won’t risk connecting – with consequence, with humanity, with what’s left of himself and his conscience. “The Lieutenant is raging against God and, at the same time, administering to himself a cruel punishment for his own transgressions. A rogue, self-flagellating saint drawing himself closer to God through willful defiance – a tormented, bedeviled man engaged in unholy communion.” (Hal Hinson, Washington Post)

Until he visits that nun, who won’t name but will only forgive her abusers, and who’s more concerned with the cop’s condition than her own. “Talk to Jesus” she tells him, and in that desecrated church somewhere in Spanish Harlem, he does – raging, pleading, howling, crawling. It could be a hallucination, it could be a vision, it could be quite literally real: the drugged out, freaked out lieutenant can’t distinguish, and neither can we. Nor do any of us need to: all that’s needed is to respond.

I’m a Canadian kid, raised in the safety of the suburbs, happy middle-class family, nice life. Still, something in me knows, there but for the grace of God – or the luck of the draw – go I. Given different circumstances, the right timing, the wrong drugs, that could be me up there. I'm certain that we can be, at times, this lost, this depraved, and what is art for if not to take us to those places now and then? And what is our faith worth if it can't break in, even to those kinds of strongholds of spiritual darkness?

If there is grace or redemption in this film, it's confused and confusing, but isn't that exactly the way it would come to a man so addled, so fouled? I think of this film and I think of Bruce Cockburn's line, "Even though I know who loves me I'm not that much less lost..."

If you see this film, don’t say I told you to. But if you think you might be up to it, see this film.


Available at Videomatica

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