Further Reading: Marion Cotillard and Forest Whittaker in Abel Ferrara's Mary

The wild director attempts to tame a mad take on the bible.

by | October 3, 2008 | Comments

Further Reading by Kim Newman

As the NFT in London prepares a Juliette Binoche season, Kim looks at Abel Ferrara‘s Mary which also stars Marion Cotillard and Forest Whitaker.

Say what you like about wild man writer-director Abel Ferrara (probably still best known for The Driller Killer), but he knows how to land the talent. His 2005 picture Mary — which gets its first UK screenings, at the NFT in London as part of a Juliette Binoche season, on the 2nd and 3rd of October — not only casts the 1995 Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner (The English Patient), but finds room for 2007 Best Actor Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland) and 2008 Best Actress Marion Cotillard (La Vie en Rose), plus Matthew Modine (returning as a Ferrara alter ego after The Blackout) and Euro-favourite Stefania Rocca (best known for The Talented Mr Ripley).

Mary

In the past, Ferrara has managed (against the odds) to get solid work from hit-or-miss talents like Madonna (reasonably credible in Snake Eyes aka Dangerous Game), Asia Argento (outstanding in New Rose Hotel) and Ice-T (good in R’Xmas), and guided powerhouses like Christopher Walken and Laurence Fishburne (The King of New York), Harvey Keitel (Bad Lieutenant) and Lili Taylor (The Addiction) through method performances which would fill shelves with statuettes if folks in Beverly Hills paid attention to films as rough, challenging and strange as the Ferrara oeuvre.

Made partially as a response to Mel Gibson‘s The Passion of the Christ, Mary is a hard-to-categorise exercise in street theology — which touches on Da Vinci Code-ish speculations about the gospels, and wrestles with the age-old problems of faith and uncertainty in a mix of subtle character interplay and outright silent movie-style melodramatics. Tony Childress (Modine) has just finished directing and starring in a film called This is My Blood (not to be confused with There Will Be Blood), which is attracting Last Temptation of Christ-style organised protests for supposed blasphemy and anti-semitism. Marie Palesi (Binoche), the actress cast as Mary Magdalene, has been so overwhelmed by the experience of playing the role that she has opted to abandon her career and go to Jerusalem (‘what are you doing,’ Tony asks, ‘healing lepers?’) to explore spiritual pursuits and dispense enigmatic wisdom via cell-phone.

Mary

It seems that she has come to believe that the depiction of Mary as a prostitute in the gospels and as Jesus’s wife in modern fiction are both male-perpetrated myths designed to cover up the fact that the messiah chose her, not Saint Peter, as his chief disciple — this is an interesting ‘what if’ in itself, and the scenes from This is My Blood in which Mary resists being shut out of the disciples’ boys’ club have a Pasolinian vigour that bests Gibson’s Christian torture porn and at least competes with Scorsese’s It’s a Wonderful Life heresies.

Further Reading by Kim Newman

A year later, with the film edited and due for release, Tony has shaved off his Jesus beard and retreated behind dark glasses while embarking on an embattled publicity tour for the film, responding to the protests with desperate aggression and hurt-little boy pride (Ferrara has been playing autobiographical games on the theme of artist as childish monster ever since The Driller Killer, and Modine enthusiastically plays up to the director’s out-of-the-room image). Ted Younger (Whitaker), a New York-based talk show host, conducts nightly interviews with theologians and Biblical historians (what channel could this possibly air on?) and Tony agrees to appear on the program (hinting that Marie might show up to solve the mystery of her disappearance) if Ted covers the scheduled premiere, which is expected to feature a possibly-violent clash with protestors (in a jarring shock scene, what seems to be a mix of hasidic Jews and a street gang attack the limo Tony and Ted are riding in).

Mary

Ted is being unfaithful to his pregnant wife Elizabeth (Heather Graham) with actress Gretchen (Cotillard), and this ‘sin’ is punished when Elizabeth gives premature birth to a baby who struggles to live (it’s probably a mercy that Ferrara uses a plainly healthy baby, though this undercuts the desperation of the hospital scenes). Just as Harvey Keitel’s Bad Lieutentant bared his soul to Jesus, so Whitaker’s straying commentator stops the show with an angst-driven prayer — very few actors can get away with praying on screen, especially if they have to talk out loud to God and the audience, but Whitaker is as good here as in any given Idi Amin scene.

With his spirituality completely turned around by this travail, Ted doesn’t give Tony the easy ride he expects on his show — and brings in the distant voice of Marie, who remains certain and centered as the men around her descend into mania. Like many a Ferrara film, the home stretch is deliberately chaotic and hard to follow, but a bomb threat disrupts the This is My Blood premiere and Marie takes to a fishing boat in Israel as she blends even more with Mary Magdalene. As cued by a debate in which characters (and the audience) are enjoined to ‘really think’ about the crucifixion, everyone gets a ‘big suffering scene’: Modine’s turn comes when Tony goes crazy as he works a projector, screening his film to the cops searching the auditorium for a bomb and gloating that there are ‘lines around the block in Chicago’. Only Binoche remains serene, though Marie’s abandonment of the life of a movie star for that of a saint might prompt audiences to muse that when Ferrara gives her great iconic close-ups he is turning saintliness back to old-fashioned stardom.

Mary

Ferrara has always had one foot in the grindhouse and the other in the arthouse. He even made (and starred in) a porn movie (9 Lives of a Wet Pussy), which is unusual for someone as inclined as fellow New York Italian-American Martin Scorsese to make bizarre religious films. Then again, ‘really think’ about the crucifixion, as Mel Gibson did, and you find the horror movie bleeding heart of Roman Catholicism — previously strongest in the Ferrara filmography in the revisionist vampire movie The Addiction.

Perhaps to put further distance between Mary and Gibson’s film, it inclines towards the respectable end of Ferrara’s output, which means even fans who cherish the likes of Ms .45 and Body Snatchers (on which he first worked with Whittaker) haven’t completely embraced it. Like Ferrara’s New Rose Hotel, R’Xmas, Go Go Tales and the documentary Chelsea on the Rocks, Mary has mostly screened at film festivals. Since The Blackout in 1997, even independent distributors haven’t got behind his films in the UK: they don’t even go direct to DVD, where you could find a Driller Killer 2 if any schlockmeister got the rights to it. This is the penalty for making films at a volume of eleven.

Tag Cloud

Pirates Horror Best and Worst Action USA Network quibi VICE 20th Century Fox politics hist revenge game show psychological thriller Disney streaming service Creative Arts Emmys robots Paramount Network ESPN Mindy Kaling Lucasfilm cancelled television Marvel Studios sitcom Spectrum Originals Teen The Walking Dead christmas movies APB Cartoon Network TCM witnail miniseries hispanic Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt halloween New York Comic Con Apple singing competition Starz Endgame strong female leads zero dark thirty Apple TV+ The Purge adaptation spain Fantasy X-Men 2016 Turner Rocketman Nominations Premiere Dates First Reviews Arrowverse canceled TV shows cancelled Marvel Television cats independent TV renewals ITV Super Bowl Election Adult Swim boxoffice Sci-Fi Paramount vampires book animated BBC Epix children's TV Amazon Prime Video Nat Geo richard e. Grant ratings Mary poppins Film Festival Character Guide Year in Review The CW RT History sports Drama Star Wars The Witch Cannes Spring TV Grammys A&E Stephen King green book travel cops SundanceTV YouTube screenings werewolf Musicals Brie Larson period drama screen actors guild Writers Guild of America Countdown mockumentary 007 Certified Fresh true crime Emmy Nominations Turner Classic Movies WarnerMedia E3 talk show Mary Tyler Moore kids 24 frames Polls and Games Winter TV NBC Pixar Marathons zombie series Quiz crime thriller 2015 Song of Ice and Fire technology GLAAD The Arrangement Comics on TV Sneak Peek Infographic TruTV Freeform dragons television police drama Video Games CBS All Access Lionsgate Shondaland Columbia Pictures USA sag awards 45 docudrama Summer transformers cults science fiction aliens cars Binge Guide serial killer foreign crime Chernobyl American Society of Cinematographers 2017 Shudder Amazon Prime Martial Arts Mystery DGA Walt Disney Pictures MSNBC Dark Horse Comics name the review Pop Christmas Disney Channel thriller DC Universe cancelled TV series Nickelodeon Esquire adventure GIFs TLC tv talk Bravo 71st Emmy Awards Captain marvel Awards Tour teaser RT21 Family TIFF versus diversity YA festivals Holidays ABC Family psycho Rocky Podcast Netflix Women's History Month See It Skip It based on movie spy thriller Apple TV Plus Comedy Central Crackle Tarantino 21st Century Fox 2018 Logo Fox News nature PaleyFest Spike Superheroes San Diego Comic-Con Lifetime indie HBO Trophy Talk Musical Avengers Opinion Masterpiece First Look Thanksgiving Ovation war slashers dc cooking IFC Watching Series Elton John Black Mirror supernatural historical drama DC Comics blockbuster Music CMT political drama binge Calendar stand-up comedy TCA 2017 Pet Sematary zombies comics Universal PBS NYCC dceu Emmys Mudbound dramedy Oscars DirecTV Cosplay Winners Fall TV OWN Trailer Rock anthology Syfy National Geographic cartoon BBC America joker batman TBS Lifetime Christmas movies romance BET Valentine's Day FXX Food Network Interview Acorn TV Warner Bros. Peacock Hulu sequel A24 Anna Paquin Reality FX GoT Ellie Kemper 2020 Film anime free movies Heroines ghosts finale award winner Disney Plus canceled YouTube Red MCU Kids & Family Photos Hallmark unscripted TNT Tumblr south america crime drama CNN Amazon blaxploitation composers Disney crossover Ghostbusters discovery Box Office Comic Book Set visit Comedy Schedule Awards spinoff HBO Max LGBTQ Showtime cinemax streaming golden globes DC streaming service Western Tomatazos Sony Pictures Marvel E! facebook Vudu SDCC Reality Competition 2019 natural history Pride Month movies theme song Chilling Adventures of Sabrina IFC Films Red Carpet AMC Crunchyroll President CBS justice league latino breaking bad social media Toys CW Seed Biopics what to watch medical drama Holiday SXSW Sundance Now Television Academy comiccon Country rotten movies we love cancelled TV shows harry potter spanish language video WGN LGBT Rom-Com Trivia toy story Hallmark Christmas movies renewed TV shows Superheroe mutant doctor who TCA Disney+ Disney Plus History Animation Britbox game of thrones MTV romantic comedy space FOX El Rey TV Land Mary Poppins Returns ABC elevated horror Sundance Extras casting Star Trek Classic Film spider-man biography comic YouTube Premium jamie lee curtis Netflix Christmas movies TV VH1 disaster