A new film at Tribeca, another slated to premiere in Cannes, yet another about to finally hit U.S. theaters after a five-year delay, while a fourth film, an ambitious mind-bender, is rumored to be headed for a debut in Venice—all this would make for a very big year for any filmmaker. Which makes Abel Ferrara Unrated, the retrospective opening today at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, seem like a victory lap.
The program of twenty-seven features scheduled to screen through May 31 showcases the range of a career that’s spanned nearly half a century. “He’s worked in grimy exploitation, sci-fi, psychodrama, crime thriller, porn, and supernatural horror, and his best films tend to be an amalgamation of all that and more,” wrote Drew Hunt at the top of a list of his favorite Ferrara films in the Chicago Reader in 2015. “Dealing in moral ambiguity and a carefree, essentially detached view of cinematic realism, Ferrara’s films appear unintentionally comical and deficient to the uninitiated, but such deliberate obfuscations are what make his work so vital.” Writing for Screen Slate, Stephanie Monohan adds that “the social milieu of cities, and all the possibilities (both dangerous and liberatory) cities contain, have remained Abel Ferrara’s true love through the later period of his career, expressed mostly in the form of documentary features” such as Chelsea on the Rocks (2008), Napoli, Napoli, Napoli (2009), Mulberry Street (2010), and Piazza Vittorio (2017).
MoMA’s series will also bring Ferrara back home from Rome, where he’s been living and working since leaving New York after 9/11. As J. Hoberman pointed out in a 2012 profile for New York magazine, Ferrara is ”a son of the Bronx. In fact, with an Italian father and an Irish mother, he’s a quintessential New Yorker—a parochial-school veteran raised in part by two Jewish aunts.” In the coming days, Ferrara will be discussing his work with collaborators such as Annabella Sciorra, one of the stars of his stark black-and-white vampire movie The Addiction (1995), and with admirers such as Josh and Benny Safdie, who’ll want to talk about King of New York (1990), the neo-noir gangster film starring Christopher Walken.
MoMA will also screen The Projectionist, the new documentary that’s just premiered at Tribeca. It’s ostensibly about movie theater chain owner Nicolas Nicolaou, but it’s actually “a love letter,” as Charles Bramesco puts it in the Guardian, to the New York of the 1970s, when the city “had the dangerous luster of a well-polished razor blade, with hedonism and crime simultaneously hitting a hysterical peak.” In The Projectionist, “a legend well-schooled in the fine art of exploitation laments the passing of the time and place that made his career possible.”