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May 12, 2006


I wish I could provide with this post a legitimate followup to my Abel Ferrara blog-a-thon entry concerning the director's work and the Catholicism ingrained in it, but unfortunately - fortunately! - I'll have to watch Mary again before I can give it the consideration it deserves; I saw it about two weeks ago, and while I feel like I've got a sufficient grasp on most of its pieces, I need a second viewing to to put them in order. Thus, consider the following as notes for future viewing and reviewing.

  1. Suffice to say that this is unmistakably a Ferrara film; indeed, until I learn otherwise, I'll continue to believe that it's his voice we hear coming out of the angel at the beginning of the film, asking Mary Magdalene why she's looking for the living amongst the dead. It certainly sounded like him.

  2. The film continues to an extent the dissolution of traditional narrative most exemplified New Rose Hotel; likewise, it certainly supports my previous arguments concerning both his representations of faith and what might be called a Catholic brand of feminism.
  3. As I understand it, the project was originated in a different form by Jean-Yves Leloup, a historian who translated the gnostic Gospel Of Mary Magdalene and wanted to make a literal cinematic adaptation of it. Leloup appears in Mary as himself, which may suggest the direction Ferrara's taken with this picture; rather than make a revisionist biblical film, he's used the fictional making of such a film as a platform from which he extrudes several parallel narratives, each with its own line of ecumenical query. The film largely takes place in the week leading up to the premiere of a controversial about Jesus and Mary entitled This Is My Blood, which is at least partially based on the Gospel Of Mary Magadelene (we only see snippets of it). Childress is an insufferable blowhard, but his film - as yet unseen by the public when Mary begins - has touched a cultural nerve and instigated massive protests.

  4. In that sense - and I'm making an uneducated guess here - I can't help but feel that Ferrara's film could be viewed as a serious answer to the hype of The DaVinci Code. I haven't read Dan Brown's book, nor do I have much interest in the film, but I do know that it posits a more involved relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Whether it follows that conclusion to any levels deeper than sensationalism, I can't say, but it's interesting to note that Ron Howard's film will be released in such close proximity to Ferrara's, which does look further that the few lines contained in the Gospel Of Mary that might be seen as allusions to sexual relations. The more fascinating (and, I might add, beautifully written) aspects of the text are the theological doctrines which Christ espouses to Mary, and the suggestion of divine privilege which confounds and angers the other apostles when she reveals to them what she's been told. "Did He really speak privately with a woman and not openly to us?" Peter asks after she'd told of the revelations made to her. "Are we to turn about and all listen to her? Did He prefer her to us?" Such a scene is suggested in Mark's account, which shares with the other canonical texts the incident in which Mary is the first to see the risen Christ; but this newer recounting not only goes into detail about it, but offers preferential closure.

    Ferrara acknowledges this in Mary, but he places the promulgation of this Gospel within a much wider context; he is, in effect, attempting to reconcile variations in creed with the power of personal faith. Whether or not he completly succeeds is something I'm not quite certain of yet. I'm tempted to say that the film's apoplectic ending is one third profound and two thirds cornball - but I won't sign off on that opinion just yet, and it doesn't by any means negate the quality of discourse that precedes it.

  5. And when I say discourse, I mean that literally; the film's lead character is a talk show host named Ted Younger, played by Forest Whitaker, who is hosting a series of television series on the historical Jesus. Much of the film's theology is presented in his interviews, and one of Ferrara's triumphs is the way in which this staggered academic exegesis becomes infused by and eventually inseparable from the analogous progress of the overarching narrative.
  6. One of Younger's guests is the director of This Is My Blood, an insufferable hotshot actor named Tony Childress (Matthew Modine) who not only helmed the picture but cast himself as Jesus. Childress has been called by other critics a caricature of Mel Gibson, but I don't think that's quite accurate; if anything, I'd say that he represents a criticism of Gibson's intentions with The Passion Of The Christ, rather than the man himself, since the two directors are quite diametrically opposed. Childress is an atheist, and his film is not devout in any traditional way, but he claims that it is no less divinely inspired than any other religious art. The dynamic of an artist compelled by the meaning of something he doesn't believe in is a fascinating one; I think it's been slightly undersold, however, by Modine's approach to the character (or Ferrara's direction of him). He plays Childress as so hilariously smug that it's impossible to take him seriously as an artist; I can't help but feel that this might have been less of a problem had Vincent Gallo, who was originally cast in the role, not dropped out of the project (although I don't think either actor could have handled the hyperbole of the climax with much grace). Indeed, several of the lines Childress delivers at the press screening seem to have been tailor-written for Gallo; but maybe I'm just biased.
  7. And again, that's one of the things I want to reevaluate when I see the film again: I'm not sure if This Is My Blood is actually supposed to be a good film. The overbearing title sequence we see suggests otherwise, as does Childress' performance as Jesus; but then there are the scenes lifted directly from The Gospel Of Mary, in which Magdalene, who is played by actress Marie Palesi (who is played by Juliette Binoche) confronts the other Apostles. These are fascinating fragments, and seem less Childress' film than Ferrara's. Perhaps Ferrara is suggesting that the film is transcended by its own content; or that there are some subjects which cannot be made light of, in which case Childress' fate is his punishment for trying to make a buck off Christ.
  8. Why is Marion Cotillard's character named Gretchen Mol?

Mary opens in limited release beginning in June. It's already opened in France, and the official site for that release has a trailer both for the film and for a making-of documentary, Oddysey In Rome, which looks absolutely specatacular.

Posted by David Lowery at May 12, 2006 5:31 PM


Nice post, David. Thanks for writing it. It clarifies many things in my own mind about this film.

"I'm not sure if This Is My Blood is actually supposed to be a good film."

I found the same ambiguity about the film-within-the-film being made by Dennis Hopper in The Blackout, a porn film set in Miami, based on Emile Zola's Nana.
But much of what Hopper does directly echoes Ferrara's working methods. And Hopper is named Mickey Ray, in homage to Nick Ray.

Posted by: girish at May 14, 2006 8:41 AM

Thank you so much for this write-up, David. Your initial impressions are rich!!

Posted by: Michael Guillen at May 14, 2006 12:16 PM

I saw Mary in September, months before digging through all of those films for the Ferrar-a-thon. I remember thinking at the time that it was a messy but fascinating near-miss of a film, which, come to think of it, is my general impression of every Ferrara film I've seen. I also remember being fascinated by Whitaker's interviews with the religion scholars. It seemed like Ferrara was genuinely interested in the religious discourse. Especially when compared to the absurd arrogance of Hollywood (Tony Childress), the religious debate was weighty and urgent. I really liked those segments.

I hadn't heard that Childress was originally written for Vincent Gallo. I think he would have been fantastic in the role, and the film would almost definitely have been better with him in it. I'm going to be distracted by that idea for the rest of the day. The footage of him as Jesus, the scenes between him and Binoche, the TV interview -- all would have a completely different character with Gallo. I would love to see it.

Posted by: Darren at May 14, 2006 1:51 PM

Thanks for the very interesting impressions. We might have seen a different film maybe, or with different eyes at least.
Personally I thougth what we see of This is my blodd looked much more creative than the embedding film. It's hard to tell whether Ferrara wanted to make it look high or lowbrow, even the reaction of the preview audience doesn't tell.
I didn't know about Vincent Gallo as Childress, and find it a much better choice indeed, for the real-life persona he's infamous for (a better alter-ego for Ferrara) and his suited performance for this role (both more internalized and irrationaly passionate). Too bad it didn't work.

The theological debate does add strong content, but I regret its mere juxtaposition (almost out of context) within the narrative drama, like if Ted didn't get anything from his guest, and Ferrara didn't take anything from it for his fiction. So I just considered those as "found footage", not actually part of the narrative development.
Could we credit the McCarthy footage quality to Good night, and Good luck achievement?

Posted by: HarryTuttle at May 14, 2006 6:32 PM

Girish - The Blackout shouldn't be too far ahead in my Netflix queue, along with R-Xmas. I'm really looking forward to both.

Michael - I read your post anticipating Mary, and loved it. I can't wait until you have a chance to actually review the film itself! Incidentally, what are your thoughts on The DaVinci Code?

Darren - I don't know if the part was actually written for Gallo, but he was definitely cast in it at some point. I remember the announcement in Variety. I didn't realize he wasn't in it until it premiered last fall.

Harry - I actually think everything about This Is My Blood looked great, except for the parts with Childress (his presence in the film, his credit in the opening titles). I don't believe this would have been a problem had Gallo played the part, and thus I'm leaning towards thinking that the film was indeed meant to be taken seriously. You're definitely right about Gallo being a better alter-ego for Ferrara. Ah well.

I don't necessarily disagree with you when you say that "Ted didn't get anything from his guest" in the interview footage,but Whitaker's performance over the course of those sequences is pretty masterfully articulated. If you watch the way he answers the questions and interacts with his guests during the initial segments, and then compare that to the manner in which he uses those same interjections in his climactic interview with Childress, you see a progression of character that's based entirely around what has happened in the surrounding narrative. So while there are some specific parallels between the subject of the interviews and the plot of the film, they're more closely bound in terms of the participants in general and Whitaker's performance in particular.

Posted by: Ghostboy at May 14, 2006 6:51 PM

Ok, the progression of his character arc is visible, but I'd say it has more to do with his intercation with Marie Palesi (who is a "light" incarnation of Mary Magdalena's principles), rather than from the theological content of his guests (or maybe I couldn't notice its application in the characterization, I would obviously need to rewatch it a second time).

I meant any director can invite intellectuals to talk on screen, and with the same "guests" the same content would be added to the film. But what matters in term of dramaturgy is how these "contributions" are absorbed by the story as a driving force rather than a cultural backdrop citation.
Paradoxally, Ted's reversal has little connection to any kind of professional/theoretical reassessment.

I'll be looking forward to your final critique.

Posted by: HarryTuttle at May 15, 2006 1:00 PM

Okay, I see exactly where you're coming from now. And I think you're probably right.

I'm definitely looking forward to seeing it again.

Posted by: Ghostboy at May 15, 2006 11:43 PM

i think mary was a great moody, atmospheric descent into personal hell more than anything else. it echoed many of ferrara's other works IMO. the funeral(the oppressive weight of the religious themes), dangerous game(film within a film), new rose hotel(excessive use of dissolve, loose,almost 'fragmented' narrative structure).

it wasn't perfect, but it left me with something to think about. can't wait to see it again.

as for Modine's performance, at first i thought Gallo would have been more suited, but the problem with gallo, is that while he is a fine actor, his performances are too 'self contained'(not the right description). he isn't believable as a director with a 'media' friendly personality. he is too neurotic, which i think would have gone against the movie. modine played him right IMO. as a cocky, arrogant, man with no depth, whose own conceit eventually paved the way for his inevitable downfall. modine can do cocky, better than Gallo, because with Gallo you always feel there is something else going on. modine can do cocky in the classic hollywood kind of way. i.e the type of which is only unravelled under extreme stress/pressure conditions. Gallo's neuroticism ALWAYS comes through, no matter what he does. the guy can't help it. that's my take on it.
(although i understand how a counter-argument can be made here, and how his neurotic side could have added another layer of intensity to the film. aesthetically he would have suit the role of jesus more too)

the idea of mary's plight, and search for her own spiritual self, has profound implications for all involved. the end was nice too, a kiss placed on mother earth and a smile, which i guess suggests inner peace. great stuff.

Posted by: yiannos at August 8, 2006 2:32 PM