Judge Paul Corupe says this Tom Berenger flick deserves extreme unction.
"If I'm going to help you, I need to ask some hard questions"—Father Michael Pace (Tom Berenger)
Like most discriminating movie fans, I'm usually wary of back-of-the-box hyperbole, but in this case I have to agree with Last Rites' liner notes, which explicitly state that this is a thriller that "will keep you guessing until the final frame!" How very true! Besides some of the more obvious brainteasers like, "what the hell is going on here?" I spent much of the film wondering if Tom Berenger fired his agent over his involvement with this film, where exactly it was that Daphne Zuniga's Latino accent kept vanishing to, and finally, how Oscar-nominated editor Pembroke Herring managed to cut this film with all the precision of a blind lumberjack.
Facts of the Case
Father Michael Pace (Tom Berenger, The Big Chill) became a Catholic priest to escape his powerful Mafioso father Carlo (Dane Clark, The Woman Inside), but when he must help protect a vulnerable murder witness, he finds himself suddenly at odds with his family.
Things start with a bang as Father Michael's Mafia-raised sister Zena (Anne Twomey, The Confession) guns down her husband Geno (Roberto Corbo) while his Latin American mistress Angela (Daphne Zuniga, Spaceballs) watches. Terrified, Angela makes her way to church, where she confesses her feelings of guilt to Michael. Although not revealed until much later, Geno was being paid off by a rival family keen on taking over the New York syndicate. In exchange for feeding information to the Feds about Don Carlo's illegal activities, Geno was to receive $5 million and a free pass to Mexico to spend the rest of his life frolicking on the beach with Angela. At first, Michael hides the girl from the pony-tailed mob sleazeballs combing the New York side streets, but as he finds himself attracted to her—and increasingly tempted to break his vows—he agrees to help Angela escape to the Mexican underground as originally planned. Once across the border, they spend a night of passion together, whereupon Angela inexplicably disappears. Left in the dark, Father Michael, like the audience, must figure out exactly what has been going on.
Although my above plot synopsis might seem simple enough, I only wish the film itself had been so straightforward. With Last Rites, veteran TV writer/director Donald P. Bellisario (Quantum Leap) weaves a suspense-deadening, needlessly convoluted story that demands multiple viewings for full comprehension—yet paradoxically, Last Rites is just terrible enough to discourage a second look from even the most dedicated bad film enthusiast.
Like most erotic thrillers, Last Rites is more interested in moving from hot sex to hotter car chases than in revealing any sort of plot, but rarely have I seen it done so badly. Clumsy scenes of exposition appear to have been added almost as an afterthought, as Last Rites drags viewers through long sequences of confusing action, only bothering to explain what is happening well after the fact. In a typical sore thumb exposition scene, Father Michael visits his best friend, an undercover narc named Nuzo (Chick Vennera, McBain), who divulges almost every detail of the plot literally seconds—nooo!—before he is gunned down in a botched drug bust. Further plot contrivances abound, including a gunshot wound that Michael simply shrugs off, all the priest's suspicions about Angela inexplicably dropped, and an illogical and hamfisted final twist. I'd even go so far to say that Angela could have easily made her way to Mexico without Michael's help at all, and that his presence as the main character of the film is completely superfluous, rendering this film a complete waste of everyone's time.
If the screenwriting is bad, then the editing is even worse. Not only does Last Rites spectacularly fail to gel the many plot threads and peripheral characters into any semblance of a cohesive plot, but the final edit may have robbed even more of the film's highly suspect logic. There seems to be some unrevealed plotline about Father Michael's marriage, as he toys with a conspicuous wedding ring throughout the film before throwing it to the ground in disgust at the end, but it isn't mentioned even once. Stranger still is a sex scene in which Michael fantasizes about making love to Angela when she curiously turns into Zena (!). Incestuous overtones aside, this did make me curious as to whether Zena was intended to have been Michael's ex-wife and not his sister, which would also explain why their relationship isn't properly defined until another awkward exposition scene well into the film. If this guess is on the money, then we can blame Bellisario and editor Herring for not bothering to remove any conflicting scenes out of their unholy Franken-plot.
Daphne Zuniga headlines the film's uniformly bad acting. With an ethnic background that seems to change in every other scene, Zuniga pouts her way through the role, unable to project anything other than a walking invitation to sex. Perhaps that's why Tom Berenger looks like a deer caught in headlights, although his attempts at New York/Italian slang do provide some of the more unintentionally humorous moments of the film. Even the usually enjoyable Paul Dooley (Popeye) gets a chance to demean himself as Father Freddie, a stuttering priest prone to napping in the confessional booth and doing bug-eyed takes at Zuniga.
The film is presented in both widescreen and pan-and-scan versions on each side of a flipper disc, and both versions look quite nice: crisp, clear transfers with no artifacts to speak of. I have no doubt that this DVD looks considerably better than previous VHS releases of the film. The stereo surround soundtrack is also more than acceptable, although I did notice some distortion on high frequencies. The only included extra is a theatrical trailer.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Logic and continuity problems aside, Last Rites does differentiate itself from the cookie-cutter erotic thrillers with one unexpected surprise: full-frontal male nudity. Although the film is rife with bare skin, and seems constructed around ways to get Zuniga in various states of (inexplicit) undress, it is Roberto Corbo who is the only actor to bare all in the opening minutes of the film, as he pleads with his wife not to shoot him in the crotch. The rarity of such a scene gives it a mildly startling effect here, which I thought was worthy of a mention.
Roger Ebert proclaimed Last Rites as the worst film of 1988, a poorly constructed thriller with that rare talent to both confuse and offend those who watch it. Personally, I can't agree that the film surpasses the sheer awfulness of that year's Mac and Me or Hot to Trot, but it is an absolute mess, a scripting and editing nightmare that has no reason to exist in the first place and doesn't even care. Now, if I can just get this film considered a form of self-flagellation, hopefully the Catholic Church will just abolish it.
So very, very guilty. Last Rites, I cast thee out!
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