Harvey Keitel is a bad lieutenant. Really, really bad. If there are really cops like him out there, I hope they quickly find another job. He's a New York cop, but he's also a hard drinking drug addict, snorting, shooting, or smoking throughout the movie, he's a compulsive gambler, double-or-nothing himself into oblivion, he curses at his children, he has a druggie mistress, he lustily stalks young women for minor traffic offenses for his own satisfaction, and generally abuses his power.
But he's also a Catholic, struggling with his faith. He's not exactly devout, but when a couple of thugs vandalize the church and violently rape a nun, he's faced on the one hand with the ugliness and evil of the crime and the gentle forgiveness of the victim. Investigating the crime, he overhears the nun's discussion with a priest, in which she tells the priest she knew the perpetrators, who were formerly students at the parish school. She won't give them up; she has forgiven them. She explains to the priest that she sees them as boys desperate to be loved, pleading for acceptance. "They did not love me, but I ought to have loved them. For Jesus loved those who reviled him, and never again shall I encounter two boys whose prayer was more poignant, more legible, more anguished."
Later, Keitel pleads with the nun to give him their names so he can take care of them, bringing them to real justice, not easy treatment in the juvenile justice system. "How could you? Deep down inside, don't you want them to pay for what they did to you? Don't you want this crime avenged?" She continues to insist that she has forgiven them. "Talk to Jesus," she says, "Pray."Keitel doesn't quite get it. The nun leaves him at the defaced altar, and he cries out to God. Weeping over his own sinfulness, he begs God for forgiveness. Jesus appears to him in bodily form. Praying, cursing, and pleading with the silent figure, he cries out in desperate repentance: "You got something that you want to say to me? . . . What? Say something, I know you're just standing there. What am I gonna do? You gotta say something! Something! . . . Where were you? Where the hell were you? I... I... I'm sorry. I'm so sorry! I'm sorry! I did so many bad things. I'm sorry. I tried to do... I try to do the rihgt thing, but I'm weak, I'm too f---ing weak. I need you to help me! Help me! I need you to help me! Forgive me! Forgive me! Forgive me, please! Forgive me, father!"
Don't get me wrong, this is an ugly film. This is not a Billy Graham film conversion moment. The depths of Keitel's anguish, and his desire to follow the nun's example, show his desire to repent and change his life. But don't show this to your Sunday school class; it earned its NC-17 rating with lots of graphic drug use, foul language, violence, and some nudity. Keitel's terrific performance carries the movie; there are some good supporting actors, but it's pretty much a one-man show.
If this were just a dirty cop movie, I would rate it pretty low. But the portrayal of the contrast between God's idea of justice and a corrupt cop's idea of justice, and the apparent conversion of the corrupt cop's understanding of justice to God's perspective makes this a much more powerful film.
(By the way, there's a Nicholas Cage movie of the same name coming out soon. Supposedly it's not a remake, but it sounds like pretty much the same story.)
Bottom line, 3 stars, but don't say I didn't warn you about the rating.