Sunday, January 17, 2010

Colin's 2010 Movies #1: Bad Lieutenant

Starting the year off on the wrong foot, I checked out Abel Ferrara’s notorious 1992 Catholic guilt-athon, Bad Lieutenant, starring Harvey Keitel. Since Werner Herzog’s quasi-remake made it into both Ryan’s and my own top ten favourite films of 2009, I felt I should check out the original to see how the two compared. The answer is not too well. While Ferrara’s original clearly has more on its mind than “Let’s cast Nicholas Cage as a completely deranged, drug-addled cop and see what happens”, there were some issues that kept it from working for me.

The film mostly follows the Lieutenant around through his daily routine of drug abuse, gambling, stealing, coercing innocent girls into a striptease and so on. What little plot there is involves his investigation of the rape of a nun, and his fall into massive debt from betting on the Dodgers against the Mets in the National League Championship Series. The nun forgives her attackers, local boys who she knows, and the Lieutenant must decide whether to forgive them as well to redeem himself for his sins and lack of faith, both as a Catholic and as a New Yorker (since betting against the Mets is apparently tantamount to blasphemy).

The problem is how inaccessible most of the film’s symbolism is. Being neither a Catholic nor a baseball fan, much of the movie’s message didn’t resonate with me at all. The baseball subplot is conveyed almost entirely through radio announcer chatter which didn’t mean a thing to me and I had to do a bit of research to understand what was supposed to be going on. Supposedly there was some kind of parallel drawn between the Lieutenant’s loss of faith and Daryl Strawberry leaving the Mets to play against them with the Dodgers but it sailed over my head like a pop fly ball to center field.

Which is a shame, because the movie has some really powerful moments and Keitel is clearly giving his all to play an extremely unlikeable character; a screaming tirade against his hallucinated vision of a bloodied Jesus Christ in the middle of a church was a particular standout. The film’s unstructured slice-of-sleazebag-life approach was novel and engaging as well. I just wish it had been a bit less esoteric with its subtext so it could’ve had more of an impact on me in the end.


madkevin said...

The subtext isn't THAT esoteric, and from what I recall is spelled out pretty straightforwardly in an early conversation between Kietel and a nun. Catholic doctrine states that anybody, no matter how horrible, can be saved. So the movie asks "HOW horrible, exactly?", and proceeds to catalog all of the incredible weaknesses and sins of Kietel's Lieutenant. Whether or not he is truly saved at the end is left as a question for the viewer.

Colin said...

True, the Catholic stuff is pretty clear. I think it was more the baseball stuff that threw me off.

Also, I guess the fate of the two boys in the end bothered me. SPOILERS for anybody reading this who hasn't seen it.

I couldn't feel that giving them all his money and a ticket out of town was right, even if it was for his own redemption. There's forgiveness and then there's rewarding them for what they did.

tom s. said...

If there are no iguanas, it really can't compare.