28 mars 2006

Mary (2005/Abel Ferrara)

Contribution to the Ferrara-thon
Mary (2005/Ferrara/Italy/France/USA) +
Opening sequence : Black. From inside the Holy Sepulchre (cave in Jerusalem where Jesus was buried and ressurected), a ray of light gradually tear open the screen as the rock is rolled aside. Mary Magdalene and other women came to embalm the body of their Lord, three days after his crucifixion, and can't find it. They weep in despair. An angel (with prop wings) asks : "Why do you search for the living among the dead?"
(film within the film) This was a scene from the film "This is my blood" adapted from the controversial life of Mary Magdalene. Shot in handheld close ups in a cinéma-vérité-like style, without clean establishing shot. Just a stolen moment, confusing, hard to grasp, we are submerged by the surprise and the sudden emotions.
Cutaway to : Marie Palesi (Juliette Binoche) wearing her costume wakes up from a nightmare, sweating, and rushes to the film set, showing in a long vertical tracking shot across the hill all the backstage forgery of the cinema industry. The lightweight fake-stones, the lighting, cables, everyone is packing, only there she's reminded the film is warpped. She refuses to go back to NYC with the film director Tony Childress (Matthew Modine) and moved by a call of faith she heads off to Jerusalem.

Prompted by an adaptation of the life of Mary Magdalene, Ferrara explores the inner spiritual quest of very different personalities coming from the media industry, not quite the most religious milieu. Sin, forgiveness, redemption, recurrant themes in Ferrara's oeuvre, in a script more feminist than ever. Contrary to Mel Gibson (who is caricatured in Tony Childress for his last controversial religious movie The Passion of The Christ), the biblical epic is only a segment cited in discontinuous flashes along the story set in a contemporean NewYork city. So in fact we learn very little about the titular historical character, and not more about Marie Palesi, the actress lost, out of reach for a year, somewhere in Israel. After the opening sequence, she turns into a distant mythical figure, the illuminated pilgrim touched by grace. Brief glimpses of her, a vanishing silhouette in the crowd of tourists visiting the 2 milleniums old holy sites.

The actual protagonist is Theodore Younger (Forest Whitaker), a famous TV talk show host running an improbable week-long primetime serie of religious debates on the life of Christ. This is not the traditional image of the mainly protestant America, the Bible-belt heartland, mega-churches and preachers shows. Ferrara, is a "catholic who lost his faith" from his own words, catholic in a pure italian tradition. Ted is the link between Marie and Tony, opposite examples of the practice of religion.

3 stereotypes of christian faith, 3 different motives for self-sacrifice:

Marie (Faith of the heart) : naive, emotional, compassionate, empathic, altruistic love. She left everything behind, quit her friends, possessions and milieu. She meets the roots of religion in the Holy Land, just like her inspirational character went on the roads to spread the Good Word by teaching an exemplary life of total devotion, humility, poverty and selflessnes. Quite a change from the traditional way of life of a famous movie star. Her conversion is almost a parable from the Bible. She doesn't intellectualize the religious dogma but can't do no wrong because she believes, without prejudices, fears nor worries, a figure of blissful confidence.
Tony (Faith of the action) : He's a proud unbeliever who believes the end justifies the means thus anything goes, demogoguery, trickery, manipulation, bribes, betrayal. Egotic and ambitious, he believes to be something of a messiah (casting himself in the role of Jesus), to be a martyr of the media boycott and the integrist intolerance, just because the subject of his film is controversial. He overlooks and despises the incredible conversion of his lead actress.
Ted (Faith of the mind) : A skeptical believer who argues great religious questions with clerics and theology experts on his show, while all this intellectual debate has little bearing on his own private life. To him religion is only rhetorics, ideology, a matter of verbal concepts and sound arguments. God is only a source of revenue and fame to him. The strange unexplained faith of Marie will lead his doubts to repentance.

The apocrypha scrolls found in Egypt in 1945, The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, questions the establishment of the Catholic Church and the truncated testimonial of the New Testament. Generally considered a prostitute and a sinner saved from stoning by Jesus, Mary Magdalene would be in fact the favorite apostole of Jesus, above Saint Peter, who is the traditional founding father of the exclusive patriarchal, mysoginist Church. In a clip of Childress' film, This is my Blood, Peter and the other apostoles, after the death of Christ, contest that Mary Magdalene received a secret knowledge that the rest of them ignored, initiating the discrediting campaign against her version of the Gospels. A short dialogue, fight for succession and authority, conflict of egos, traducing the longliving institution of the catholic Church to keep absolute control and priviledges of the messages of God.
According to Mary Magdalene, the true meaning of Jesus teaching was to connect spiritual and physical, to found faith on a creative imagination. The real life scholars who studied these controversial documents denied by the Vatican, are the guests featured in Ted's theological debates: Jean-Yves Leloup, who translated the Gospel of Mary in french, and was the religious advisor for the historical portions of Ferrara's film. As well as Elaine Pagels and Amos Luzzatto.

Ferrara determines 3 constructs : Icons, reality and communications.
The iconic images carried out by the film medium, TV news, documentaries, live interviews or computer database. So video, film footage and computer screens are regularly inserted within the film, to formally abstract its content from real life, the main referential construct, where a handful of characters are observed in various places of the globe.
Reality is identified and characterised by its location in the world.
Matera in Italy is the location where Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew and Gibson's The Passion of the Christ were shot, before Tony Childress shoots This is my Blood. Italy is also the homeland of the Catholic Church at the Vatican. Ironically this location is meant to represent a Jerusalem scenery, forged for the studio trickery.
That's why Marie Palesi runs away from a cinematic fantasy for the real thing in Jerusalem. Israel being the place of everyday bomb terrorism now, a reality check clashing with the poetical allegories of period movies.
And New York city, the base of Ferrara's universe, the home of his characters from where they are partially affected by what is going on at the other side of the world.
The third construct is the telephone/TV communications that create a virtual space of reunion, putting in contact dissociated people like Marie who could only be reach through mobile phone from an undetermined location. The phone also plays a mediator role in mundane lives of close people, like between Ted and his wife, allowing lies, pretense and mystery. Ferrara uses voiceover, parallel montage to show the disconnection induced by this deceiving means of communication.

Now, filming erudit talking heads and showing portions of what could have been a period biopic of Mary Magdalene do not give a moral caution to the rest of the film... The religious statements are merely an excuse to paint human characters with pseudo-existential doubts seeking for a remotely spiritual redemption. All this theatralized in a melodramatic confusion of incidentally collided situations. Despite an ambitious subject and interesting formal ideas, Ferrara's drama is messy and stereotyped.
The core of the film revolves around the adultarous life of Ted, and the coincidental premature delivery of his wife's baby, suggesting all sin carries dreadful repercussions in one's life, like a demonstration to sell faith with the fear of punishment (which is precisely the conservative conception of the Catholic Church opposed to the humanist approach to religion proposed by Mary Magdalene's inheritance).
"Stop cheating on your wife or your baby dies" suggests heavily the plot without bringing answers to the moral test.
"Go to Hell!" shouts Elizabeth (Heather Graham) on the phone to his unfaithful (in both meanings) husband because he can't excuse him neglecting her since she's pregnant. This interracial couple is another cheap way for Ferrara to aggravate a scandalous polemic.
The baby's fate is connected in a parallel montage with an explosion in Israel and a bomb alert in the NYC theatre where Childress premiered his new film, confronting the existential crisis of the 3 characters simultaneously as if provoked by the wrath of God. Under such drastic circumstances, blaming past wrongdoings, last-chance introspection and self-sacrifice sound more like convenient superstition than a genuine leap of faith.
Theodore Younger sleeps with Gretchen Mol (Marion Cotillard), actress friend of Mary Palesi, just to get the phone number to get her on his show the very same week!
In a ridicule "thrilling" scene, Ted and Tony, dealing a pact of mutual mediatic profit at the back of a limo, are violently assaulted by a gang of integrist thugs (awkward mix of black gangstas, hasidic jews and conservative christians) and Ted walks out like a hero and puts his TV celebrity person in harm's way to save Tony from this unjust hatred with his bare hands... The stones thrown at the limo to kill Tony are an obvious reference to the mob sentence of Mary Magdalene in the Bible, placing Theodore in the role of Jesus who saves the victim ("He who never sinned shall cast the first stone")
This much melodrama just doesn't solidify an already dubious empiricist religious demonstration.

Few more notes on the allegory of cinema in Ferrara's vision of the world:
  • The opening sequence plays on the possible confusion between a dream and a film, right before reminding us that it's all an illusion by filming the technical backstage of a movie set.
  • The arguable commitment of an actress for her role having physical impacts on her sanity (Method acting, identification, schizophrenia...), especially with spiritual roles, refering to other famous cases (like Maria Falconetti in Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc). Exagerrated/false involvement of megalomaniac actors who wind up believing they can become the character they play. Difficulties to differentiate fiction and reality.
  • The role of media images in our society, cited as hard evidences. Forgery and manipulation of images for marketing purposes. Dichotomy of the meaning of the image created by the artist and the understanding of the received image by the public, leading to vain controversy. Limits of the freedom of expression (1st Amendment shield for moral provocations). Arguable honesty/integrity of the auteur in his/her work.
  • A powerful scene of Tony Childress who locks himself in the projection booth while the theatre is evacuated because of the bomb alert, because he believes in his film and wants his premiere to carry on, he launch the projection himself in an empty auditorium. Maybe an grim symbol of the ultimate solitude endured by a filmmaker once the film is done, a sentiment of isolation from the audience and from the mediatic buzz...

In a cinema era without creativity should we acclaim a film for the unusual ambition of its content while its making is so lame? A good script full of interesting concepts pre-exists the film but doesn't guarantee it's achievement. Using cheap melodrama tricks and push-button emotions to enact a powerful story undermines its reception and lead us to question the original quality of the ideas that couldn't come across in a more honest way. Melodrama is a great form of entertainment as long as it doesn't take itself too seriously by trying to deal with or solve bigger-than-life moral issues... Either Ferrara wants to move us with the daily lives of characters in conflicts with themselves and failing to relate to others, or he wants to take on major concerns such as a critique of The Bible, the history of faith or the Israel-Palestine conflict... loaded underdevelopped issues that encumber his plot.
Grand Special Jury Prize - Venice 2005
(s) ++ (w) + (m) ++ (i) + (c) ++
Also check out about this film :

12 commentaires:

Michael Guillen a dit…

First and foremost, Harry, I adore Paris!! I tend to return every other year in September or October to spend a month mangling the language and fattening myself up on ham, cheese, and chocolate. It is Paris that truly taught me to love film and to enjoy film as education. I envy you the opportunity you have for daily immersion in cinema. Next time I am there, I will let you know, and we can flip a coin for which retrospective to haunt.

Enjoyed your review, although it was discontented with the final product, which--truth be known--I am anticipating myself. I love Magdalen so much that no one quite does her right (except perhaps those beautiful statues in the Middle Ages Museum there in Paris).

When I get a chance, I hope you won't mind my folding your review into my own blog entry?

I love how you catch that Ferrara is promoting a spirituality quite unlike what Magdalen was promoting. Astute!!

HarryTuttle a dit…

Thanks for writing a comment! I read your anticipatory entry before I had finished with my post, and I worried you would be disappointed, like I was, that the movie has little to do with a Mary Magdalene biopic.
It's really interesting to read how you anticipate the film before getting a chance to see a single image of it, with a blank visualisation, open to all perspectives, yet with your own studies of this very subject. We sometimes form a very different idea of a film just by reading verbal reviews. And the discovery of the visual embodiment is always a surprise.
I'm looking forward to your expert judgement of the religious content, soon hopefully.

I'll be honored if you like my review enough to incorporate it in your blog. Be my guest, please. It's all about spreading the information.

I'm glad you love Paris, as so do I. You most welcomed to email me if you come around so we can meet in these cinephile streets. ;)

Matt Zoller Seitz a dit…

Hey, Harry: You write, "In a cinema era without creativity should we acclaim a film for the unusual ambition of its content while its making is so lame?" I have to ask myself that question all the time, whenever I sit down to pass judgment on somebody's work, so I am really glad you put it so succinctly here. And much as i wish Mr. Ferrara had come down on the right side of your expectations, I am still very inerested to see this movie.

HarryTuttle a dit…

Well I wasn't sure about leaving such a bold statement, as one could eawily say the same of my lame writing... anyway it was just a little provocation to reflect my pet-peeve of the moment. Ferrara shouldn't be responsible for this trend of mainstream movies. However I found the film to be overtly mainstream a times, in a bad way.
I need to watch some other of his films so well defended in this Ferrara-thon elsewhere. ;)

Thanks for visiting.

p.s. Paris is under siege, and looks like we're back in May '68... they even cancelled a film I wanted to see because of the massive protests! Dammit.
The cinephile quarter just happens to be in the Sorbonne vicinity where all the students uprising fired up.

Anonyme a dit…

Thought-provoking review.

I haven't seen the film, but you've given me lots of things to watch for when I do. I hope to add something smart to the review and comments after that happens.

In fact, I don't think I've ever seen any Ferrara film. I need to read up on the blog-a-thon posts and get to viewing!

Two points that stuck out:

1) "The opening sequence plays on the possible confusion between a dream and a film, right before reminding us that it's all an illusion by filming the technical backstage of a movie set."

That sentence (and your description of the film's opening) reminds me a lot of a Krzysztof Zanussi film I saw a few years ago. I'm not sure of the English title ("Life, as a Fatal Sexually Transmitted Disease"?), but it also begins with a film-within-a-film (in Medieval Europe) before revealing its true, contemporary setting.

2) "Melodrama is a great form of entertainment as long as it doesn't take itself too seriously by trying to deal with or solve bigger-than-life moral issues...."

I disagree with your assessment of melodrama; I think that it can -- and often has -- tackled some pretty heavy issues, and pretty well. Sirk and Fassbinder are examples.

You make a convincing case against Mary -- that it doesn't deal well with all the big issues it tries to address -- but I think perhaps you let Ferrara off the hook too easily by blaming the film's shortcomings on its genre.

Anyway: great post; I look forward to watching the film and coming back with some real, grounded opinions!


girish a dit…

Terrific analysis, Harry.

The projection booth scene (which you talk about so well) was very powerful for me.

One reason I had trouble with this film is that I know so little about Christianity. It almost disqualifies me from expressing my opinion about it.

I think that there is a fine line between melodrama and "emotionalism". The latter has a lesser "stigma" attached to it, no? I'm not making a case for MARY being in the latter category. I'd have to see it again before making a judgment on that.
But I felt that was the case with THE BLACKOUT. It's less a melodrama than a film whose emotional roller-coaster seems somehow more earned than a normal melodrama might be.

Michael Guillen a dit…

Thanks for graciously allowing me to fold your comments into my entry belatedly, Harry! It provided the chance to read your post more carefully and to enjoy the commentary.

HarryTuttle a dit…

Thank you Pacze Moj. I appreciate your points.
I didn't see this Zanussi film, that's interesting.
I don't know Sirk either, but I wouldn't call Fassbinder "pure melodrama" because he broke the codes of the genre and filmed it in a very personal manner (contemplation, understatements, social transgressions, aesthetics) thus leaving the plot drive on the sidelines at times.
Of course Ferrara is not the typical streamlined director who obeys to conventions, I hope my review accounts for his structural and technical creativity there. And I'd like to remind that I usually admire his work! (King of New York is my favorite) although I probably wouldn't go as far as consider him the "best american living director". I went in with high expectations, because I like Ferrara's work.
What disappoints me is that Ferrara's film is just like Theodore on the talk show, dilettante. And also I have very little tolerance for exploitation of high moral values to cheap purposes.

Binoche and Mary Magdalene service the plot to justify the melo (suspens/drive, somtimes in contradiction with the religious ideals they portray like I noted) instead of nurturing the characterization with superior conflicts (like he does in his other films).

As I commented on Ali Mubarak's blog, I couldn't see any of Ferrara's obsessions (sexual perversion, transgression, fantasy, ambiguous identity, male gaze) expressed in the film apart from sin/redemption. But maybe I didn't pay close enough attention... that's why I'd like to read more critiques (not much out there at the moment).

My main impression of the film back in december was to be cheated. Hopefully a second viewing would clear the slate.

I'm still open to "conversion". ;)

HarryTuttle a dit…

Thanks Girish. The projection booth scene has fantastic expressionist lighting with the torchlights of the cops in the dark auditorium, the projector beam and the blown up shadows distorted on the walls. This was a beautiful scene. For instance it's a shame that Modine doesn't get more plot development... I would have preferred the film to focus on the actress and the director, instead of the hack TV host.

If I gave a shot at reviewing The Mahabharata without knowing anything about hinduism (and mismatching gods' names a few times), it's ok for you to give a non-catholic biased review of a christian film. On the contrary I think it's interesting to read how common culture basics are perceived by an external/impartial mindset. It's the power of varied "angle of attacks", right?

I see what you mean by "emotionalism", like I said I could be overlooking other fine aspects of the film. The way this character arc was channeled is not my idea of good writing. I hope my review still present the strong points of the film for fans who anticipate it. The melodrama argument is only my subjective qualification of the end result, so it's easy to remove it from my general description in case of disagreement.

Thank you for the kind paragraph in your entry Maya. sorry to hear it won't be at SIFF... But since the film has american funds it should get an official american release (although the direct competition with The Da Vinci Code will be tough)

HarryTuttle a dit…

3 more samples from the film available here.

HarryTuttle a dit…

First impressions of Mary on Drifting: A Director's Log

Ferrara discussion for Mary on a_film_by

HarryTuttle a dit…

Mary and the Ferrarian Image by Matthew Clayfield (Esoteric Rabbit)

Robert Davis (Errata) on Mary (from Paste)