Friday, October 17, 2008

A Passion Play

Directed by Abel Ferrara
Written by Abel Ferrara and Mario Isabella
Starring Matthew Modine, Juliette Binoche, Forrest Whittaker, Heather Graham, Marion Cotillard

October 17-23, 2008
Anthology Film Archives, 32 Second Avenue

Binoche in Mary
For nearly 30 years, Abel Ferrara has made gritty, in-your-face films ranging from memorable sleazefests like King of New York and Bad Lieutenant to execrable items such as Dangerous Game (with a zombielike Madonna) and Go-Go Tales, which was inexplicably chosen for the 2007 New York Film Festival.

Mary is not the director’s latest feature: made in 2005, it’s only now being seen in New York. It’s partly because its subject is religion, but even so, it’s silly that a dud like Go-Go Tales received a high-profile film festival slot, while Mary has been ignored for three years.

Mary is Ferrara’s passionate, personal take on the difficulty of being a person of faith in a world filled with crazed fundamentalists of all stripes. Matthew Modine plays Tony, an egomaniac star who has directed himself in the lead role in a film about Christ, This Is My Blood. Tony’s leading lady Marie (Juliette Binoche), who plays Mary Magdalene in his film, was so affected by her role that she has dropped out of acting to remain in the Holy Land and reconsider her life. Meanwhile, the famously acidic—and agnostic—TV interviewer Ted (Forrest Whittaker), who is planning to sit down with Tony to discuss his film, has his own crisis of faith.

On its simplest level, Mary is Ferrara’s response to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, which whipped fundamentalists—and many “normal” Christians—into a moviegoing frenzy several years ago. Raised a Roman Catholic, Ferrara has talked about how that force-fed ideology is difficult to shake after one’s formative years. With his overbearing, outsized personality, This Is My Blood director Tony seems to be a swipe at Gibson and his legendary self-serving publicity-seeking when Passion was released.

Surprisingly for a Ferrara film, Mary has effective tender moments between Ted and his wife Elizabeth (Heather Graham), whose difficult pregnancy prompts him to pray for his family’s well-being, compounded by the guilt he feels over his one-night stand with Tony’s assistant, strangely named Gretchen Mol (played by the comely Marion Cotillard).

Never a subtle director, Ferrara paints Mary in primary colors, showing these characters as they grapple with issues at the very core of their faith (or lack thereof)—guilt and sin, love and forgiveness. What saves Mary from sanctimony is its directness: rarely has Ferrara tackled such personal issues without descending into unnecessary vulgarity. He also elicits superb performances from Whittaker and Modine, who do their best work in years; as for Binoche, she’s on another level entirely, giving yet another luminous, heartbreaking portrayal in the title role.

originally posted on

No comments: