The Pain of Forgiveness in Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant
[Editor’s Note: This analysis of how a Christian message of forgiveness can be found in unlikely places should not be taken as Between Cities'recommendation to view this film, which contains extremely graphic violence, language, nudity, and drug use]
Forgiveness hurts, no matter what end of it one finds themselves on. It can be easy to think of forgiveness as a sweet thing, and it certainly is. But before one arrives at that sweet freedom of being reconciled with someone, there is often a lot of pain: pain from asking forgiveness, pain from knowing one’s need for it, even pain from giving it. This painful side of forgiveness is what filmmaker Abel Ferrara explores in his controversial 1992 film Bad Lieutenant. Ferrara, who recently premiered a film about the life of the saint Padre Pio, was raised in the Catholic tradition of Christianity and this upbringing has been influential in his filmography. This influence is no more apparent than in Bad Lieutenant, which stars Harvey Keitel in the titular role.
The crime film follows Keitel’s unnamed “Bad Lieutenant” as he investigates the rape of a nun while simultaneously getting himself into deeper and deeper gambling debt over an ongoing MLB World Series. The character is no saint and frankly the word sinner barely begins to scratch the surface. Throughout the film the lieutenant uses his power to coerce people, obtain drugs, and force sexual favors. All of these dark elements of the film are leveraged at the end of the second act to create a truly shocking confrontation that exemplifies the pain of forgiveness. The lieutenant’s first interaction with the nun whose rape he is investigating is while he eavesdrops on her confession to a priest. During this confession, the nun discloses that she knows the identity of her rapists; they were two young men who attended one of the parish’s educational programs. However, she refuses to disclose their specific identity to the priest and states her desire to turn “hatred to love,” expressing her hope that through her own forgiveness of the rapists, they too will be forgiven by God.
Before speaking to the nun for the first time, the lieutenant shoots up heroin with his friend Zoe. During their drug induced haze Zoe makes a reference to Christ’s command to forgive “seventy times seven.” This quotation comes from Matthew 18, a chapter which deals heavily with the subject of forgiveness as it includes the parable of the unforgiving servant. The parable tells the tale of a servant who has his enormous debt forgiven by the king, but then immediately goes and demands another servant repay a comparatively miniscule debt to himself. The king finds out and punishes the first servant for not extending the same forgiveness he has given to the other servant. Ferrara places the Lieutenant in the same position as the unforgiving servant, but with a new ending to the parable. Earlier in the film, after placing and losing a large bet in hopes of getting enough money to pay off his outstanding debt, the lieutenant obtains a fraction of the money he needs from a drug dealer he busts earlier in the film. This corruptly procured money becomes pivotal in the way Ferrara both pays homage to and transforms the parable of the unforgiving servant.
As the drugs slowly work their way out of his system, the lieutenant goes to speak to the nun for the first time in the sanctuary of the parish. He expresses his desire to seek vengeance on her behalf if she just gives up their identities. To the lieutenant, this is the ultimate way to set things right; violence must beget violence. It is worth noting that actress Frankie Thorn, who portrays the nun, does an incredible job of portraying the internal tension between her desire to forgive and the pain she carries. The nun restates her desire for forgiveness but the lieutenant ups the ante, asking her whether or not she has the right to let the rapists go free only to have them commit the crime again. The nun dismisses the lieutenant’s question and asks if he believes in God, to which he replies yes. This brings us to our shocking confrontation.
After the nun exits the sanctuary, the lieutenant finds himself greeted by an apparition of the wounded Christ. The apparition stands silently, seemingly waiting for the lieutenant. This destroys the lieutenant, turning him into a weeping mess. Here the pain of being forgiven bubbles to the surface, as the lieutenant becomes acutely aware that he is guilty of things not much better than what the rapists did (a detail that is obscured in the R-Rated version). The realization that one is forgiven is extremely uncomfortable as it requires one to confront their need for forgiveness; Keitel renders that discomfort in a truly haunting fashion. While the lieutenant resists Christ’s silent presence at first, he eventually crawls to the apparition’s feet and kisses them in a manner that should ring some bells for those familiar with the narrative in the gospels. The apparition then dissipates and in its place stands a confused parishioner who gives the lieutenant information that leads him to the rapists. While this does introduce a level of subjectivity into the apparition, suggesting it may be a withdrawal induced hallucination, the distinction is ultimately irrelevant.
Apparition or hallucination, the impact is made and this is where Ferrara’s twist on the parable comes into play. The lieutenant finds the rapists, handcuffs them together, and forces them into his car. As he drives he waves his revolver in their faces, chastising them for what they have done. The nun’s self-sacrificing emulation of the Christ that the lieutenant encounters ultimately triumphs. They arrive at the bus station where the lieutenant instructs them to never return to New York, and gives them the thirty thousand dollars he got from the drug dealer. The lieutenant’s awareness of his own debt having already been erased by Christ, as well as the example set by the nun, leads him to extend forgiveness to the criminals. In spite of his deep anguish over extending this forgiveness to them, the bad lieutenant becomes the forgiving servant.
"When we go through the pain of forgiveness, forgiveness can break into the present moment and transform even the most wretched person into one motivated by love."
In this moment, when the lieutenant has forgiven the criminals both on behalf of the nun and as a consequence of realizing his own forgiveness in Christ, we can see the many ways in which pain is interwoven with forgiveness. The pain of the crucifixion, the pain of the very Christ that stands before the lieutenant, is the pain that makes forgiveness possible for the lieutenant. The pain of forgiveness is a pain whose purpose is to end pain, even if the process of arriving at that point is excruciating. It is a pain the nun courageously bears, though many of the viewers including myself would have felt more comfortable had she chosen vengeance instead of mercy (Ferrara explores divine vengeance in the film Ms. 45, an interesting inverse of this film). Through this bearing of pain, cycles of evil can be broken and new beginnings are made possible.
The final act of Bad Lieutenant begins with the lieutenant’s encounter with Christ; a moment that brings the lieutenant face to face with the nearly unbearable truth of his need for forgiveness, as well as the shocking revelation that he is already forgiven. The lieutenant becomes a surprising candidate for a Christ figure, offering mercy and forgiveness to the criminals. The eschatological reality of forgiveness is an assumed one in the film: through the pain of the cross Christ has already had the final word. It is already there, not waiting for you to act but waiting to transform you from an unforgiving servant into a forgiving one. Christ meets us in the pain of forgiveness not to deny its reality but to bring us through it. When we go through the pain of forgiveness, forgiveness can break into the present moment and transform even the most wretched person into one motivated by love.