'R Xmas

(Abel Ferrara, USA/France, 2001)


Although highly acclaimed in Europe, Abel Ferrara's films of the late '90s, The Blackout (1997) and New Rose Hotel (1998), were virtually invisible in America. After an unproductive period, Ferrara returned at the dawn of the new millennium with 'R Xmas – a more conventional film for this most abrasive of auteurs, employing a linear narrative and an observational style heightened by constant, dreamy fades and superimpositions.

With its mostly whispered or softly spoken soundtrack of voices, often burbling in un-subtitled Spanish, 'R Xmas is an unusually calm, quiet and non-violent work. But its recreation of the drug scene of the '90s has a remarkable, hypnotic authenticity.

As in The Funeral (1996), Ferrara returns to the theme of the family unit. The family of 'The Husband' (Lillo Brancato) – Ferrara's films have often deprived characters of names in order to turn them into types or emblems – is both an ordinary, everyday brood and a functioning, criminal unit at the heart of an intricate, black market economy of drug manufacture and sales.

Ferrara moves fluidly between these two levels of life, indissolubly blending the banal with the sensational. Only the musical transitions from synthesised Xmas carols to heavy hip-hop (courtesy, as always in Ferrara, of Schoolly D) mark the drama of this downwardly and upwardly mobile passage. As so often in Ferrara, an enigma slowly builds, implicating the man in an ambiguous web of guilt and denial.

'R Xmas – announcing itself (perhaps jokingly) as the first in a series charting a secret history of New York – is a film which builds fascination through the accumulation of intriguing detail, such as the painstaking preparation of drug bags. At its centre is the extraordinary performance by Drea De Matteo as 'The Wife' – and a strange sort of tenderness between married people we have never really seen before in Ferrara's cinema.

Like the edgiest films of Paul Thomas Anderson or Spike Lee, 'R Xmas builds an atmosphere of noirish dread from an obsessive concentration on the passages of daily life: walking down streets, entering doorways, running the gauntlet of a dark, clubland corridor or a lonely alleyway. These become the 'stations' of the Ferraran anti-hero – as well as those menaced souls dear to him.

MORE Ferrara: The Addiction, Bad Lieutenant, China Girl, Ms. 45, Pasolini, Mary, King of New York

© Adrian Martin June 2003

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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