Helmer Abel Ferrara's Catholic angstfest "Mary" met with considerable disbelief after its first Venice screening, but the Ferrara faithful will recognize a partial return to form after several disappointments. But passionate turns from Forest Whitaker and Juliette Binoche could be the touch of grace needed to get pic a distribution blessing.

Maverick helmer Abel Ferrara’s Catholic angstfest “Mary” met with considerable disbelief after its first Venice screening, but the Ferrara faithful will recognize a partial return to form after several disappointments. Not quite a standout like “Bad Lieutenant,” but hardly a dud like “New Rose Hotel,” “Mary” reps a sincere grapple with faith and redemption in cynical times. Tricky construction, nesting a film within the film, hits plenty of duff notes. But passionate turns from Forest Whitaker and Juliette Binoche could be the touch of grace needed to get pic a distribution blessing after ancillary-only releases for the last few Ferrara pics.

Cocky American film director Tony Childress (Matthew Modine, amusingly channeling Ferrara’s persona) finishes helming a revisionist biblical drama shot in Italy called “This Is My Blood,” that stars him as Jesus and major Euro star Marie Palesi (Binoche) as Mary Magdalene. Portions show Mary not as a prostitute but rather a full fledged disciple locked in a power struggle with fellow-disciple Peter, and feature an intense perf by Binoche/Marie.

Having gone deep into the role, Marie has had some kind of spiritual epiphany. When it’s time to strike the set, she refuses to go home and sets out for Jerusalem.

A year later in Gotham, Ted Younger (Whitaker) hosts a slightly implausible weeklong, primetime nightly network TV special examining the historical truth about Jesus. Various experts (played by real-life scholars such as Jean-Yves Leloup, Amos Luzzatto and Elaine Pagels) and clergy discuss alternative gospels or issues in theology on the show.

Younger goes to see a press screening of “This Is My Blood” introduced by Childress. Younger asks Childress to appear on his show to discuss the film, which looks set to reap similar controversy to Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” Younger would also like to book Marie on the show, but Childress claims not to know where to find her.

Suddenly, Hasidic Jews and others attack the limousine the men are traveling in, first of pic’s several shock moments that give it an peculiar spooky but effective movie vibe.

It becomes apparent Younger only considers doing the show a good career move, and has little religious sensibility. Indeed, he is clearly not all that bothered by the seventh commandment since he’s cheating on his eight-months-pregnant wife Elizabeth (Heather Graham), with an actress named Gretchen (Marion Cotillard), who just so happens to have Marie’s phone number in Israel.

In Jerusalem, Marie spends her time visiting the Wailing Wall and going out on a boat with friends. Seafaring image is, per the pic’s press notes, inspired by the description of Mary Magdalene as a “fisherwoman.” When Younger calls her, she seems indifferent to his offer of appearing on his show.

The three main characters thus form a spectrum of belief, with cynical non-believer Childressat one end, Marie at the other, and Younger hovering somewhere in the middle. But having set up this schematic trinity, Ferrara’s script, co-credited to Simone Lageoles and Mario Isabella, doesn’t really know where to go with it.

Last act plunges headlong into melodrama, though with a terrifically delivered monologue by Whitaker.

Given umbra lighting throughout by Stefano Falivene that plunges characters into shadow frequently, and Francis Kuipers’ ominous music on soundtrack, it would seem Ferrara’s aim here is to fashion a spiritual horror movie of sorts, one without the devil, a monster or bad guy as such, but still drenched in an atmosphere of dread and anxiety. The film succeeds on this level up to a point, and the refusal to deliver glib ultimate answers is laudable, but the lack of dramatic resolution leaves a flat, hung-over feeling.

Mary

Italy-France-U.S.

Production

A Fernando Sulichin presentation of a De Nigris Prods. SRL (Italy)/Central Films (France)/Associated Filmmakers Inc. (U.S.) production, in association with Wild Bunch. (International sales: Wild Bunch, Paris.) Produced by Roberto De Nigris, Fernando Sulichin. Executive producers, Massimo Cortesi, Andrea Gropplero, Jean Cazes, Angelo Arena. Co-producers, Mario Isabella, Guiseppe Bonzi, Thierry Klemeniuk, Jean-Pierre Marois, Frank DeCurtis. Directed by Abel Ferrara. Screenplay, Simone Lageoles, Ferrara, Mario Isabella.

Crew

Camera (Kodak color), Stefano Falivene; editors, Fabio Nunziata, Landgon F. Page; music, Francis Kuipers; production designer, Frank DeCurtis; art director, Monica Sallustio; costume designers, Frank DeCurtis, Silvia Nebiolo; sound (Dolby Digital), Davide Magara; associate producers, Lewis Saul, Francesco Di Silvio, Marco Consonni; casting, Stefania De Santis. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (competing), Sept. 5, 2005. (Also in Toronto Film Festival -- Visions.) Running time: 86 MIN.

With

Marie Palesi - Juliette Binoche Ted Younger - Forest Whitaker Tony Childress - Matthew Modine Elizabeth Younger - Heather Graham Gretchen - Marion Cotillard Brenda Sax - Stefania Rocca Jean-Yves Leloup - Himself Amos Luzzatto - Himself Elaine Pagels - Herself
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