The authors of the Bible were not squeamish. There are the famous stories often denuded of their violent content or written tersely enough to allow politer inheritors to excise uncomfortable realities. Samson, Judith, and Daniel come to mind (what would three youths burning in a furnace smell like anyway)? The most offensive linger only in whispers. We might hear of the men of Sodom and their lust for Lot’s two guests (Genesis 19), less often do we dwell on Lot’s offering his daughters up to the assailants or the gang rape, beating, and dismemberment of the Levite’s concubine (Judges 19-20). As far as I know, Veggie Tales never produced an episode about the massacre of the Benjaminites.
There is a tradition of hagiography that relies on depravity to make its point. The more horrible the sins, the greater God’s glory. In St. Mary of Egypt’s vita, for instance, we read that she made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the hope of having sex with as many pious men as possible. She paid her way by trading favors for money and rides. Cash, grass, or ass as they (apparently) used to say. These lurid tales could also act as a form of cathartic release. Channeling his time’s annoyance at mendicant corruption and impropriety, Chaucer has his Summoner invert a legend about friars living under Mary’s cloak in heaven. In this version, Satan blows them out of his ass.
A truly Christian story shouldn’t dwell in death and despair for their own sakes. An obsession with nothing but the ubiquity of pain will drive you insane. No question. It refuses the redemption that Christians (and really anyone who, again, doesn’t wish to be—and I don’t mean this as an insult—insane) profess. But our fault, by any metric, is fear of the squalid and depraved. We are nations of Ned Flanderses, pious, mustachioed repressors, whether religious or not. We recommend Terence Malick films and Babette’s Feast (1987). We smirk at the idea of little men with hairy feet smoking hash. When Christ does bleed, it’s because Mel Gibson’s dad is a sedevacantist not because we wish to see the world suffused with grotesquerie and horror, redeemed despite itself.
Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant (1992) displays the world in miniature. It is a truly heinous movie. It is also one of Martin Scorsese’s top movies of the 90s.1 Ferrara, who recently directed a biopic about Padre Pio (2023), shows us frank and revolting portraits of (multiple kinds of) drug use, sexual assault, neglect, and rage. We see Harvey Keitel fully nude from the front, weeping and screaming, high on crack and heroin. Later, we see him scream at a bloody Jesus Christ in a gorgeous church, kissing the savior’s feet and wondering how soon the mob is going to put a bullet in his head. As Keitel’s character says when his bookie warns him that he’s playing with fire, that he’s going to die: “I’m Catholic.” He smiles then and at no other time.
Bad Lieutenant doesn’t really have a plot. We simply follow the Lieutenant (Harvey Keitel) over a few days as he commits every crime under the sun. He holds at gunpoint two teen girls driving their dad’s car without permission and masturbates in front of them. Pretending to chase drug dealers into buildings, he uses the opportunity to extort them for dope. After listlessly paying for sex, he rushes across the street to a convenience store robbery, where he sends the beat cops away with the store owner and robs the teenage assailants. At his daughter’s first communion, all he can think about is gambling. He is never not 1. Drinking, 2. Smoking crack, 3. Shooting heroin, or 4. Firing a gun on the crowded streets of New York City at no one in particular. Often, he’s doing some combination of the four.
The bare thread that connects events is his taking bets on the World Series from his colleagues. He keeps talking them into money on the Mets; he keeps putting money on the Dodgers. Unsurprisingly, he keeps losing. In between, he abuses his power and makes the already grim, dirty streets of New York City that much more of a nightmare.
A nun is violently and horrifically gangraped on the altar of a church. In any other movie, this event would become the center of the cop’s moral crusade. What could be worse? But the Lieutenant is unconcerned, answering “I’m Catholic” when an exasperated fellow cop balks at his total lack of interest in the case. He thinks the Church is a scam. Yet we’ve seen the rosary dangling from his car mirror. He’s being ironic with his colleague. By the end of his journey, the irony will be that he’s right. When he does decide to become involved, he has accepted his fate. There’s no sports gambling left to do. Manic, that’s why he’s smiling.
What frustrates him most is that he knows the Nun (Frankie Thorn) can ID the boys who raped her. She is frank: they are poor kids from the local streets. She pities their awful lives and forgives them their transgressions. Nothing, and I mean nothing, could more fully stand outside the experience of the Lieutenant. He knows he has his demons, understands that he’s a bad man. His plan for redemption is to torture and murder the little rats. But to see love, forgiveness, and equanimity in real life, up close, and in a way that ensures his own doom is a revelation. His reality is rent, and he doesn’t know where (or to whom) to turn. Jesus shows up in his fevered wailings. But he never speaks; our protagonist wails and kisses his feet.
The Lieutenant does find the boys. But far be it from me to tell you what happens here. What I can tell you is that Ferrara understands the stakes of redemption. As Dante tells us of King Manfred: all it takes is a contrite heart.
Image Attribution: Bad Lieutenant, dir. Abel Ferrara (1992)
- Roger Ebert, “Ebert & Scorsese: Best Films of the 1990s,” https://www.rogerebert.com/roger-ebert/ebert-and-scorsese-best-films-of-the-1990s.