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Mary (Abel Ferrara, 2005)


    A serious-minded film from director Abel Ferrara about the confusion and anxiety that mark a true inquisition into one’s faith, Mary certainly upends itself in its quest to capture that disquiet. After several movies that dealt with a character’s allegorical quest toward faith, here Ferrara grabs the bull by the horns and makes his most explicitly spiritual work to date. Set in distinctly modern times, this film features Juliette Binoche as Marie, an actress who has become so subsumed in her role as Mary Magdalene that she finds herself unable to return to her home when her film shoot is over. With the bulk of a plot taking place a year after the shoot has ended, most of the action is transposed to Ferrara’s native New York City, where viewers are introduced to Ted Younger (Forest Whitaker), a television talk show host. His program deals explicitly with issues of faith, yet his immersion in the media culture surrounding religion has done little to prepare him for a bona fide spiritual crisis. His communications with Marie, still abroad on her pilgrimage a year later, present the script’s most explicit questioning of religious matters.


    Especially good here is the way that during the film the audience’s attitude toward Binoche’s character is allowed to shift. At the film’s start, she’s playing Magdalene, the disciple who might have in fact been closest to Jesus, but she quickly become difficult to relate to in her consuming passion. Other characters, like the audience, consider her to be mad, but as the film progresses, her calm is restored, even if her normalcy is not, and her conviction becomes a source of solace when everything else seems to have gone insane. Her unquestioning devotion to her faith is a slap in the face to the notion that our questioning of religious issues should be limited by arbitrary, commercially imposed limits such as a thirty minute television time slot or the two hour run time of a film. Mary stresses her assertion that the complete transformation into a spiritual being, as she says, “takes courage.” It’s not something that you can simply buy or glean quickly from sound bites.


    More than most religious films, Mary underlines this idea of pure devotion as a scary, all-consuming state to those who haven’t yet taken the plunge. Theologians talk throughout the film about religion in theoretical terms, but when a crisis prompts Whittaker’s character to undergo a soul-searching inquisition, he abandons the theoretical and is shaken to his core. That anxiety makes this confused movie the perfect response to the media frenzy that surrounded Mel Gibson’s movie last year (indeed, Matthew Modine plays a role as a Gibson-like director who callously exploits faith and controversy for profit, though his crisis remains secondary). Ferrara’s aggressive style makes this fear palpable, giving the scary notion that one must surrender oneself to be given to God visual representation. This is a work of style over substance with its dazzling, intense last half-hour the clear standout. Throughout, the director uses his typical scenes of random violence to prompt a search for meaning. With his usual theatrical lighting and his slightly dreamy backdrops, he intensifies the sense of rising theological doubt that clouds his protagonist’s mind. Mary is a film that imparts a remarkable sense of importance to its characters’ spiritual progression to those viewers willing to shake its admittedly heavy hand.




Jeremy Heilman