Werner Herzog released Bad Lieutenant: Port Call of New Orleans starring Nicholas Cage this last year in homage to director Abel Ferrara's trail blazing film Bad Lieutenant, which stars Harvey Keitel in one of his finest performances. Bad Lieutenant was one of the first films to receive the NC-17 rating (for, I assume, the extreme amount of drug use in it) and, as such, never received wide distribution. Distribution has always been a problem for Ferrara and he readily admits that whatever people know of him stateside has been from seeing his films on video and DVD. He is fairly well known in Europe as a quintessential New York filmmaker and his films have picked up prizes at the Cannes, Venice and Berlin film festivals, but his insistence on making his own movies rather than hacking for the studios as well as his peculiar mixture of metaphysics and seemingly z-grade subject matter has kept him more than an arms length from the mainstream here.
In Bad Lieutenant, Harvey Keitel plays a bad cop who we pick up just as his life is beginning to fall apart. He's racked up a $15,000 debt betting on the World Series and keeps doubling the bet and losing, till he owes $120,000 to unseen mob bookies. In addition to being a serious alcoholic, he's become addicted to crack cocaine, which he steals from crime scenes and smokes to keep himself going, and is starting to get into heroin, which he moves through the film from freebasing to eventually shooting up. A nun is raped on the altar by two teenage boys and L.T. gets the idea that he should solve the case to claim the $50,000 reward, but there's a problem: the nun has forgiven them.
Keitel is insanely erratic here, as we would expect him to be, sometimes pulling out his police-issue automatic and threatening people with it, sometimes firing warning shots to bend people to his will. Yet Ferrara constantly frames him in medium shot, giving enough to place him in his claustrophobic inner city environment, but never making a complete person of him, which gives L.T. a strange trapped-rat-in-a-cage continuity throughout, as if everything he's doing is just a way of scratching at the walls. And the walls in the end seem to be existence itself, or as the peculiar redemption sequence suggests, God or God's absence. There's an odd continuity between the themes in some of Scorsese's films (Mean Streets, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Raging Bull especially) and Bad Lieutenant, which makes some sense as Ferrara and Scorsese are both Italians from a Catholic background and New Yorkers to boot. Where Scorsese and De Niro created a Jake LaMotta who never achieves redemption and ends up as a sort of hollow man, reciting lines from an old boxing movie that mean nothing to him though they should mean everything, Ferrara and Keitel's L.T. achieves redemption and proves to be full of life rather than hollow, though this is what kills him.
Though I go back and forth in my feelings for Frankfurt School Marxist Theodor Adorno and his multitude of rejections, his comment that "where great art is ascetic and unashamed, the Culture Industry is pornograhic and prudish," seems entirely relevant here. Though both Scorsese and Ferrara are admirers of Roberto Rossellini, who I can see as a model for both men and is indeed as ascetic and unashamed as a film artist has ever been, Scorsese's films (except for, perhaps, The Last Temptation of Christ) are sensual phantasmagoria of hopelessness, receiving wide acclaim and distribution throughout the mass media industry. Where Scorsese's Raging Bull ultimately bares little influence of Rosselini, Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant is an oddly neo-realist film, with few frills, seeking truth and hope in the most disgusting person in our society--a corrupt guardian of power and property whose ultimate selfless and redeeming act is to let two young criminals go free.