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

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