I finally caught up with Abel Ferrara’s 2005 film Mary: it was the one Ferrara feature (excluding his pre-Driller Killer pornos) that I had never seen before. Needless to say (at least for me, since I have expressed my enthusiasm for Ferrara before, and also, long ago here), it’s amazing. It’s hard to get a total grip on Mary after just one viewing, but I will do my best.
Mary is apparently Ferrara’s response to Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. It concerns a macho-asshole film director (played by frequent Ferrara alter ego Matthew Modine) who has made a film, This Is My Blood, about the life of Jesus, in which he also played the title role, and who is now trying to promote the film, in the face of protests both by Jews (who consider it anti-Semitic) and Christian fundamentalists (who consider it heretical). Strictly speaking, the fundamentalists are right, since the film emphasizes the role of Mary Magdalene as a key disciple of Jesus, drawing upon various suppressed, heretical Gospels. Mary clashes repeatedly with Peter, who seems to reject her role as a disciple largely on sexist grounds. The revisionist reading of Magdalene is supported by interview footage with Elaine Pagels and several other (real-life) scholars and theologians who have worked on early Christianity.
Though Mary does have characters and a straightforward narrative, it is also very much of a collage film. We see scenes from the film Modine’s character has made, together with various other types of footage from the (fictional) world in which Modine’s character lives, together with documentary, or documentary-style footage. The scenes from This Is My Blood are gorgeous, in murky chiaroscuro, with a mobile camera that frequently stays close enough to the actors that all we can see are their faces, filling the screen, emerging out of, and returning to, the shadows. Despite the director’s egotistical stunt of playing Jesus, the weight of this film-within-the-film clearly rests with the actress playing Mary, whose feelings — from the mournfulness of witnessing Jesus’ death, to the joy of his resurrection, and the message (rejected by Peter) that she has gotten from him — are subtly, but powerfully, modulated throughout these chiaroscuro sequences.
Mary starts with the film’s final wrap, and mostly takes place a year later, in New York, as Modine is preparing for the premiere. But another plot strand involves the actress playing Mary (this character is played by the great — and woefully underappreciated in the US — Juliette Binoche). Binoche’s character has overidentified with her role; she can’t let go of Mary Magdalene — and she drops everything in order to go to Jerusalem, where she wanders the streets and jostles the crowds on a spiritual quest. The scenes involving her seem to be shot on location, with handheld camera, and bright and even natural lighting; we see documentary-ish scenes of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim prayer, together with ones of her roaming the streets. She embraces the Wailing Wall (?), takes part in a Seder that is interrupted by a terrorist attack (with the fact that the Last Supper was a Seder clearly on her, and Ferrara’s, mind), and prays at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (I think). Binoche has very little dialogue, but anguish (and later, peace) are etched on her face throughout these scenes of quest. And there is an emotional continuity (beyond the stylistic differences) between her scenes in Jerusalem, and those in the film-within-the-fillm.
I still haven’t mentioned the most extended narrative strand in Mary, which involves an intellectual (as in Charlie Rose, or someone else on PBS) talk-show host (played by Forest Whitaker), who is doing a series of shows focusing on the actual, historical Jesus — hence the interview material with theologians and Biblical scholars. Between his preparations for the series, and his general philandering, Whitaker’s character is woefully neglecting his late-term-pregnant wife (played by Heather Graham), and generally making a mess of his life. Whitaker interviews Modine (and Binoche via telephone) on his show, which is the minimal way in which the various plot strands intersect.
The New York scenes, involving Modine and Whitaker, are mostly at night — they feature the poetry of distantly-lit office skyscrapers, briidges, and freeways, contrasting sharply with both the chiaroscuro of the film-with-in-the-film, and the clarity of light of the Jerusalem sequences. Whitaker is also often seen in his TV studio, surrounded by video monitors that are usually showing either interview footage, or else the news: domestic (US) riots and crime scenes, and political violence in Israel and Palestine. There are also other dissonant moments; at one point, somebody throws a rock through the window of a limousine in which Whitaker is negotiating with Modine, and the confrontation is shown in music-video style, with swish pans and jump cuts. Throughout the New York scenes, there are also lots of tracking shots down corridors (and sometimes back as well), the vertiginous camera movement accenting the increasingly unhinged emotions of the characters.
So the film is wildly disjunctive stylistically, as well as disjointedly multi-stranded narratively. It’s as if this promiscuously jarring mixture of styles and media were the only way Ferrara could express the actuality of life in the 21st century — and this, in turn, is necessary in order to make the film’s spiritual explorations vital and meaningful, instead of merely antiquarian. As the film proceeds, things become more and more unhinged. Modine confronts the protesters at his film’s premiere; when a bomb threat empties the theater, he locks himself in the projection room and rolls the film despite the absence of spectators. Meanwhile, Whitaker is not there for his wife when she goes into labor and gives birth to a baby boy whose survival is in doubt (it was unclear to me whether this was a case of birth defects or just premature birth; in any case, there’s an amazing scene of the baby, crying and crying while encased in a plastic bubble, as Whitaker tries futilely to comfort the child). By the end of the film, Binoche, surrounded by violence, seems to find a sort of inner peace, while Modine is in the throes of a full-fledged ego breakdown, and Whitaker, weeping, throws himself before the Cross.
All this echoes moments of spiritual intensity in other films by Ferrara (Harvey Keitel abjecting himself at the end of Bad Lieutenant; or the peace that Lili Taylor perhaps finds at the very end of The Addiction). Mary is, I think, the equal of those earlier films. Its greater heterogeneity or fragmentation perhaps lessens the emotional impact a bit, but it has the effect of making Ferrara’s spiritual claims more compelling than ever before. It’s useless to ask whether Ferrara is in a literal sense “religious”; I am inclined to agree, however, with Dennis Lim’s suggestion that Mary is “the rare movie that could stand as a rebuke to both The Passion of the Christ and Religulous.” Ferrara’s sensibility is, of course, deeply Catholic; but this is inflected, in Mary, both by a concern for Judaism (which Ferrara comes back to again and again, throughout the film) and by a general heretical/quasi-feminist edge. The recentering of the film’s implicit theology around Mary Magdalene is expressed through a delirious male abjection before the feminine (in terms both of the role of Binoche, and Whitaker’s hysterical-yet-moving repentance for how he has wronged Graham). One can rightly say that such an inversion of the masculine arrogance Modine’s and Whitaker’s characters both represent is not truly feminist, because it just inverts the gender stereotypes, rather than actually undoing them. But the film’s masculine hysteria is inseparable from its spiritual longings; by which I mean one cannot reduce either of these dimensions to being merely a displaced symptom of the other — they must both be accepted and taken seriously, together. And, looking at the film this way, it charts, and makes, a convulsive emotional movement that is its own evidence and justification. Ferrara’s greatness as an affective filmmaker is unparalleled, and has never (apart from Nicole Brenez’s wonderful book) gotten the recognition that it deserves. Ferrara breaks down the distinction between art film and exploitation film, just as he does between spirituality and sleaze. He is absolutely contemporary, and yet he pushes beyond the cheap irony and encapsulated soundbytes of all too much contemporary culture.