I walked into Mary a few years ago at the Toronto Film Festival utterly unprepared for the bloodbath that was about to ensue. Some kind of meditation on Christianity, the media, and how the two intersect in our present state of hyper-religulosity (“Product of end times sensibility in the ether, or is end time sensibility being cynically stoked by media savvy political parties?” the film wonders), Mary, for its brief, enervating 83-minute runtime, never rests on one tack, one character, or one idea for very long. By the end, the whole thing’s shattered into a thousand pieces. It’s Abel Ferrara on ‘roids and one of the best films to play in a theater so far this year (catch it this week at Anthology).
Mary’s a mess of a film, but furiously so. Weaving together three stories—Matthew Modine, the egomaniacal filmmaker/star behind Passion¬esque JC tribute This Is My Blood fights to get his movie opened, while Juliette Binoche, who stars as Mary Magdalene in the film, becomes possessed by the spirit of her character on the eve of the premiere, while Forest Whitaker (incongruously coupled with a pregnant Heather Graham who seems wildly, appropriately befuddled by the insanity of the movie she’s in) as a heavy-lidded Charlie Rose-type, tries to make sense of his own relationship to Christianity on his evening talk show—Ferrara conjures, in spite of his own erratic tendencies, a brutally direct statement from an incoherent bunch of spare parts. Each of these strands could be a movie on its own, that Ferrara crams them all into one and ends up with something is its own kind of miracle.
Stephen Holden describes it in the New York Times thusly: Mary, which opens Friday in New York without a distributor three years after it was shown in the Venice Film Festival, is a weepy slab of overheated Gothic kitsch that shamelessly piggybacks on Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ and the controversy it engendered. Steeped in candlelight, with leaping shadows and ominous rumbles, it also conjures garish memories of The Exorcist sequels and the heavy-breathing nonsense of The Da Vinci Code.
Since he’s somehow positioned this (totally awesome) description as a pejorative, I’ll turn it over to J. Hoberman for a parting shot: Though a mere 83 minutes, Mary is its own double bill – a response to The Passion of the Christ in which the director (and star!) of a Jesus film (Modine) called This is My Blood is a fantastic amalgam of Mel Gibson and Ferrara himself. Everyone in this jagged construction – which incorporates all manner of newsreel footage – is perched on the edge of hysteria. Speaking for confused filmmakers everywhere, Ferrara’s alter ego winds up barri-caded in a projection booth, unclear whether his movie is a terrorist threat to society or vice versa.