Finally seeing U.S. release three years after it played at the Venice Film Festival, and an entire election cycle after the cathartic, ruinous culture wars that discolored all of 2004, Mary was conceived as Abel Ferrara’s answer to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Though the cultural wars appear to have subsided for the time being and Campaign 2008 has finally forced America to accept the fact that Jesus is a black man, better late than never. As with many of Ferrara’s best films, it varies its tone almost willfully, as though resentful of the possibility that his film might be mistaken as great by those who prefer their movies to slide down their throats without friction. (This is, after all, the director who expressed reservations that he might have directed the comparatively mainstream-successful King of New York with too much “fascistic precision.”)
Ferrara regular Matthew Modine steps in as the director’s alter ego Tony Childress, a hot-tempered, live-wire auteur who jumps on the fundamentalist bandwagon and shoots a Jesus flick because “that Mel Gibson flick made a billion dollars.” And takes the role of Jesus on himself. Because he all but knows that any film about Jesus will incite some measure of controversy, Childress is ready to argue against picketers with the notion that First Amendment rights are under attack. He’s betting the farm on a win-win situation.
Contrasting his insidious opportunism is the apparent crisis of religious conscience afflicting his lead actress Marie Palesi (Juliette Binoche). After playing Mary Magdalene (the director provocatively disputes her traditional role as a prostitute and instead sees her as Jesus’s wife and primary disciple), Palesi chooses to stay on in Jerusalem and make a spiritual pilgrimage to the very heart of her character. Between Childress’s cynicism and Palesi’s wholesale devotion is Ted Younger (Forest Whitaker), a skeptical, supercilious TV talk show host without any apparent value system until he begins to examine the dual crosses Childress and Palesi are bearing and, more importantly, the fact that his wife gives premature birth to his child while he’s out cheating on her.
The three form a triune plot that Ferrara digs into with sleeves fully rolled up. Earlier I called Mary his “answer” to the Gibson screed. It would more accurately be referred to as the anti-Christ in that, while Gibson’s film is as formally stanch as its religious politics are pugnacious, Ferrara’s free-jazz philosophizing and deliberate lack of formal discipline (at least in the muscular, unyielding form Gibson’s film demonstrates) keep God the question, rather than promising that God will fuck you up with His (and Gibson does mean “His”) answer. If you don’t necessarily buy the notion that Palesi’s awakening would be tipped by what seems an obviously exploitative movie set, and if you can’t help but note that a domestic scare doesn’t offer Younger much narrative choice other than to trust omniscient intervention, and if Childress is painted as rather too broad a huckster to believably spark off a united, bipartisan furor—well, no one ever said Ferrara doesn’t paint in broad strokes. Mary isn’t exactly a smart film, but it’s a bluntly instinctive one.