“Woe to him who builds his house without righteousness and his upper rooms without justice, who uses his neighbor’s services without pay and does not give him his wages, who says, ‘I will build myself a roomy house with spacious upper rooms, and cut out its windows, paneling it with cedar and painting it bright red.’
“Do you become a king because you are competing in cedar? Did not your father eat and drink, and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him. He pled the cause of the afflicted and needy; then it was well. Is not that what it means to know Me?” declares the Lord.
“But your eyes and your heart are intent only upon your own dishonest gain, and on shedding innocent blood and on practicing oppression and extortion.” Therefore thus says the Lord in regard to Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah, “They will not lament for him: ‘Alas, my brother!’ or, ‘Alas, sister!’ They will not lament for him: ‘Alas for the master!’ or, ‘Alas for his splendor!’ He will be buried with a donkey’s burial, dragged off and thrown out behind the gates of Jerusalem.
“Go up to Lebanon and cry out, and lift up your voice in Bashan; cry out also from Abarim, for all your lovers have been crushed. I spoke to you in your prosperity; but you said, ‘I will not listen!’ This has been your practice since your youth, that you have not obeyed My voice. The wind will sweep away all your shepherds, and your lovers will go into captivity; then you will surely be ashamed and humiliated because of all your wickedness. You who dwell in Lebanon, nestled in the cedars, how you will groan when pains come upon you, pain like a woman in childbirth!”
– Jeremiah 22:13-23
Last night I watched Bad Lieutenant: not the new New Orleans re-envisioning by Werner Herzog, but the New York original starring Harvey Keitel. It’s a much harsher and bleaker film than Herzog’s, but ultimately it’s a morality play, a Catholic parable about sin and guilt and penance, about the terrible capriciousness of fate, about justice and mercy and forgiveness. That the story centers not on ordinary civilians but on cops and mobsters and nuns means that the movie is also a social commentary — a jeremiad. Even Jesus makes two personal appearances: once on the cross, once off it.
Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant is as old-fashioned and impassioned, as personal and universal as the Old Testament. As fascistically sadomasochistic too. In my prior writing about the Testaments I’ve gone for intellectual and weird in fiction, for creative and conciliatory in nonfiction. But now I’m becoming persuaded that to get at the meaning of this ancient reality you have to paint it red.