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'The Funeral': Brother's Keepers

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 08, 1996

"The Funeral" is draped with the dark certainty that violence begets violence. But it examines the issue in a chillingly religious context. In New York in the 1930s, an Italian American family mourns the death of Johnny Tempio (Vincent Gallo), shot by an unknown assailant.

As Johnny lies in the coffin, his grieving, furious brothers, Ray (Christopher Walken) and Chez (Christopher Penn), are inextricably caught in a cycle of brutality. In the minds of these professional racketeers, vengeance is the only available option.

Through a childhood memory of Ray’s, we see why. Taking his three young sons into a warehouse, the unseen Tempio patriarch shows Ray, Chez and Johnny a captured enemy, who has dishonored the family. Compassion is one thing, Ray’s father tells him. But if this captive is set free, he’s bound to kill them all, driven by the fear that the Tempios might change their minds about letting him live. The old man hands Ray a gun and tells him to execute the prisoner‚. . .

In extended flashback, the story examines Johnny’s life. Because the Tempios are involved in protecting labor unions, Johnny develops a naive admiration for the working man and communism. This leads him into a foolish confrontation with rival gangster Gaspare (Benicio del Toro), who asks the Tempios to go easy on a factory boss who wants to lay off workers. Johnny adds further fuel to the fire by sleeping with Gaspare’s wife.

Director Abel Ferrara and his writing partner Nicholas St. John, who also made "King of New York," "The Bad Lieutenant" and "The Addiction," are interested in deeper issues than mere revenge. The movie is about man’s futile attempt to find grace and justice in a world where there seems to be little of either. Obsessed with finding and killing his brother’s murderer, Ray finds himself in a grim reprise of that traumatic, childhood execution. Chez, a volatile personality who is tormented by alternate desires to do right and wrong, struggles with Johnny’s murder in his own, rather twisted manner. The wives wait with dread, while these flawed men are forced to make life-or-death decisions. And while everyone grapples with these urgent matters, you’re engaged on a moral level rarely found in movies about violence.

THE FUNERAL (R) — Contains violence, profanity, sexual situations and nudity.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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