Friday, October 24, 2008
Film Review: MARY (2008, Abel Ferrara)
Stars: 4 of 5.
Running Time: 83 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Matthew Modine, Forest Whitaker, Juliette Binoche, Stefania Rocca, Marion Cotillard, Heather Graham, Marco Leonardi
Tag-line: "It takes courage to walk in the truth."
Prizes: Grand Prix, SIGNIS award, Sergio Trasatti Award, and Mimmo Rotella Foundation Award at 2005 Venice Film Festival (it was competing against the likes of BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, THE CONSTANT GARDENER, GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK, and TAKESHI'S).
MARY is like most Abel Ferrara films- self-deprecating, not entirely narratively cogent, and bleakly difficult to watch- but with a transcendent sincerity that vaults it to the upper-tier of what the arthouse today has to offer. MARY is at once a spiritual journey film, a making of a movie-within-a-movie film, and a horror film. There are moments designed to jolt and scare, moments of true quotidian terror, moments of grim self-reassessment, moments of loud and quiet exasperation, and moments of tranquil beauty. Matthew Modine is a Mel Gibson/Ferrara amalgam of sorts, who is both and neither at the same time. His desire to let his film be seen heats into a fervor that leaves him a 'mad bomber' of cinema, creating a film possibly only to be screened for himself. Juliette Binoche plays Mary Magdalene in Modine's film, and she is having trouble divorcing the role from her present reality, which still may leave her as the most stable character in the film. Forest Whitaker is a Charlie Rose-type interviewer whose infidelity (with Marion Cotillard playing Gretchen Mol in what is perhaps a bizarre in-joke, as Mol appears in NEW ROSE HOTEL, THE FUNERAL, and Ferrara's segment of SUBWAYSTORIES) and lack of commitment to his pregnant wife (Heather Graham) leads him on a spiritual journey not unlike Harvey Keitel's in BAD LIEUTENANT. Every actor is excellent, playing the most humiliating and compromising moments with absolute conviction and realism. This is where Ferrara shines, as he always has: Keitel whimpering and crying out to a hallucination of Christ in BAD LIEUTENANT, Modine ending his sobriety while enveloping himself in a curtain and Miami's calming ocean winds in THE BLACKOUT, or the vampiric Lili Taylor feeding on junkies after hours near Washington Square in THE ADDICTION. The cycles of birth and rebirth, whether literal or existential, persist through Ferrara's films- the act of absolution seems attainable only when a character breaks down to their most childlike form: a baby crying in an incubator suddenly looks very similar to Keitel (or Whitaker, in MARY) crying out for forgiveness to a God they're not even sure exists.
The people who will hate this know so already. They grimaced at BAD LIEUTENANT, found THE BLACKOUT dull, and NEW ROSE HOTEL pointless. This movie isn't for them, and if they 'got' this, or any of Abel's films, it would be a defeat for Abel and the rest of us. Abel realizes he targets a small niche audience, otherwise he'd go back to pornos and THE DRILLER KILLER. (I'm sure there's money for a DRILLER KILLER reboot lying around if it were to star Jessica Biel.) But I'll leave with this benediction: Ferrara is one of the bravest, boldest archangels of cinema. He doesn't preach or pontificate needlessly; he doesn't have to. He achieves the near-impossible feat of unfurling his narratives like an age-old scroll, penned with the utmost sincerity, and with equal parts ancient knowledge and modern edifice. Even if the parts are greater than the sum, or if certain elements simply don't work, his and his collaborators' sincerity lift his films to a truly mystical level. Bravo, Abel. And let's hope it doesn't take three years for your next vision* to reach our shores.
*Ferrara's strip club screwball comedy GO GO TALES (starring Willem Dafoe, Modine, Bob Hoskins, Asia Argento, and Anita Pallenberg) and his Chelsea Hotel documentary CHELSEA ON THE ROCKS are completed and have already run the festival circuit, yet remain unavailable in an American release as of yet.