Abel Ferrara’s Very Big Year

The Daily — May 1, 2019
Abel Ferrara

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.”

Following Friday’s screening at MoMA, Kino Lorber will begin rolling Pasolini out to theaters across the country over the coming weeks and months. The film starring Willem Dafoe as the iconoclastic poet, essayist, and filmmaker was passed over by U.S. distributors when it premiered in Venice in 2014—despite strong reviews. “Certainly, the Ferrara style is unmistakable,” wrote Adrian Martin for Sight & Sound, making note of “the ever-wandering camera that racks focus at will (but nonetheless never fails to pick up what is essential in any scene); a constant use of slow dissolves between scenes and locations, sometimes in tandem with slow motion; dreamy passages of nocturnal driving . . . But there is energy and lucidity here: after the disappointment of 4:44 Last Day on Earth (2011) and the embarrassingly amateurish career nadir of Welcome to New York (2014), Pasolini marks a welcome revitalization of Ferrara’s creative juices, not seen in such full flow since Go Go Tales (2007).”

Ferrara’s next big festival appearance will be in Cannes, where he’ll present Tommaso as a special screening. Playing alongside Ferrera’s real-life wife and daughter, Dafoe stars again in a somewhat autobiographical drama. “It’s not really me,” Ferrara’s told IndieWire’s Eric Kohn, “and it’s not really . . . not me. It’s more specific to me, but once Willem starts playing, it’s a dangerous game.”

And then there’s Siberia, a loose adaptation of Carl Jung’s The Red Book that’s been in various stages of planning and financing since 2015. Once again, Dafoe, Ferrara’s neighbor in Rome, will play the lead, a man haunted by memories and dreams. “Described by Ferrara as a mix between The Odyssey and Alice in Wonderland,” notes Ioncinema, “the film is about one man’s introspective voyage while in an isolated mountain cabin.”

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