Friday, January 07, 2011

Ferrara at AFA: Mary

Abel Ferrara’s Passion of the Christ? Lord, have mercy. Actually, those prayers were partly heeded, if not fully answered. Despite his delicate subject matter and a proven willingness to offend, Ferrara’s Mary (trailer here) is nothing like the outrage one might expect. Perhaps that is why there has been so little theatrical love for the film, even with its Venice and Toronto festival credentials. Fittingly, it screens tonight as part of the Anthology Film Archives’ Abel Ferrara in the 21st Century retrospective of the director’s recent unreleased or under-distributed films.

Juliette Binoche plays actress Marie Palesi playing Mary Magdalene in risky new cinematic life of Jesus directed by and starring the self-absorbed actor Tony Childress. However, when production wraps, Palesi refuses to snap out of it. Since she already has a form of Jerusalem Syndrome, she sets off for Israel rather than returning to Hollywood.

Loving the sound of his own voice, Childress hits the publicity circuit hard on behalf of his film. He accepts an invitation to appear on Ted Younger’s television talk show, a Charlie Rose for liberal theologians and religious writers. Though he discusses faith every night, the TV host has lost his own, succumbing to a myriad of worldly temptations. Of course, this being an Abel Ferrara film, he is in for a long night of the soul.

Though there are potential warning signs all over the place, the ultimate implications of Mary are arguably not overtly hostile to Christian faith. In fact, Ferrara rather explicitly tackles themes of redemption and forgiveness. In a way, it is much like Bad Lieutenant without any of the creepy, disturbing parts.

Still, Ferrara hardly embraces Evangelical Christianity here. There are frequent references to the knuckle-dragging rabble protesting Younger’s film, though Ferrara often seems to conflate the very different controversies surrounding Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ and Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. There is also a fair amount of speculation about Mary Magdalene’s role as a privileged disciple supposedly covered up by the sexist early Church. Frankly, this might have seemed bold a few years ago, but after scores of Da Vinci Code inspired books and films, this seems like pretty ho-hum stuff today.

Befitting Ferrara’s style, Forest Whitaker’s work as Younger is emotionally raw and in-your-face immediate. It is a shoot-the-moon turn he thankfully pulls off. Also, his no-holds-barred on-camera take-down of Chisholm is just really good cinema. Binoche is perfectly cast as the Palesi, the ethereal paragon of awakened spirituality. Refreshingly, she conveys a sense of dignity through faith, never portraying the actress as a religious nut. Though often associated with wishy-washy parts, Matthew Modine actually does arrogant creeps like Chisholm rather well, entertainingly repeating his Freddy Ace shtick from Alan Rudolph’s Equinox here.

There is nothing shy about Ferrara’s go-for-the-throat approach to Mary, but cinematographer Stefano Falivene gives it a shockingly polished look. However, Francis Kuiper’s overly portentous score is somewhat counterproductive at times. It might be self-contradictory and messy, but Mary is probably ten times better than anticipated. For bold souls and curious heathens, it screens tonight (1/7), January the 11th and the 17th at Anthology Film Archives as part of its focus on the director’s largely undistributed recent films.