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

Toys PaleyFest Emmys spanish language Black History Month Academy Awards Adult Swim Hallmark Christmas movies Disney streaming service Mary Poppins Returns The Witch Walt Disney Pictures Binge Guide Star Wars rotten Extras die hard Masterpiece Character Guide canceled Turner LGBTQ 2015 Columbia Pictures Crackle New York Comic Con MTV Universal CMT Musicals Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Amazon Prime Video Travel Channel technology Cannes screenings Paramount Network obituary Red Carpet cartoon TCA 2017 Spectrum Originals Rocky comiccon asian-american Thanksgiving Quiz worst jamie lee curtis superhero TV renewals National Geographic Nickelodeon Film Festival TCA Awards Lifetime harry potter name the review facebook talk show witnail indiana jones HBO Go tv talk quibi Reality Competition sag awards Peacock Opinion Disney Plus Interview Disney cancelled TV shows Tarantino free movies Netflix Christmas movies TLC crime thriller casting MSNBC History Summer comedies Turner Classic Movies stand-up comedy chucky TV TruTV Country crime nature Superheroe composers GoT hollywood Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Food Network Funimation Holiday Awards Esquire Countdown finale streaming Year in Review travel discovery Marvel justice league Ghostbusters Vudu science fiction Shondaland Anna Paquin diversity reboot Music USA Network IFC Films Mary Tyler Moore Tubi nfl Fantasy parents LGBT Creative Arts Emmys award winner Brie Larson richard e. Grant Mystery Bravo dark Rocketman a nightmare on elm street Film Pop game show spain Arrowverse YouTube Trailer OWN YouTube Premium ESPN adventure true crime Western crime drama anthology franchise ABC Family cooking Hear Us Out TIFF nbcuniversal reviews Song of Ice and Fire disaster Starz serial killer Pixar Mary poppins canceled TV shows Comics on TV documentary dc Sundance TV children's TV RT21 movies 21st Century Fox President Infographic classics Nat Geo Pet Sematary doctor who Superheroes Black Mirror medical drama Stephen King hist zombies American Society of Cinematographers social media adaptation revenge Sci-Fi universal monsters indie Election police drama The Arrangement Disney+ Disney Plus remakes Lifetime Christmas movies rotten movies we love Box Office FOX Discovery Channel films BAFTA The CW Grammys vampires space Sony Pictures DC Universe Best and Worst renewed TV shows halloween strong female leads Cosplay sitcom Polls and Games Showtime boxoffice WarnerMedia political drama cancelled APB CBS Crunchyroll unscripted The Purge Endgame spinoff Baby Yoda Fox News BBC One The Walking Dead binge BBC America child's play 72 Emmy Awards Heroines video 2017 CNN A&E Ovation mission: impossible Amazon Studios DC streaming service Set visit Christmas video on demand Logo Warner Bros. joker GLAAD CW Seed Classic Film book golden globes Amazon Holidays Apple TV+ Marvel Studios Star Trek First Look SXSW dogs romance Drama Disney Channel Winter TV Martial Arts 007 E! festival MCU Elton John DirecTV politics 2020 laika CBS All Access Avengers thriller mockumentary twilight RT History Premiere Dates Captain marvel latino Photos See It Skip It Dark Horse Comics blockbuster game of thrones teaser toronto TV Land Pop TV Television Academy 2019 hispanic worst movies ABC emmy awards based on movie scorecard Television Critics Association batman San Diego Comic-Con A24 Women's History Month psycho Valentine's Day SundanceTV directors Trophy Talk criterion cancelled TV series Rock FX on Hulu toy story Super Bowl blaxploitation cops animated Winners X-Men Musical Video Games HBO Podcast Paramount sequel spy thriller Comedy television aliens Spike anime best festivals Spring TV breaking bad Watching Series docudrama dramedy DGA FX dceu fast and furious VOD foreign singing competition cars BET Awards Tomatazos Hallmark christmas movies mutant Certified Fresh Hulu Acorn TV cinemax sequels Lionsgate cats supernatural Action Kids & Family TBS stoner HBO Max NYCC critics Trivia Apple ratings Calendar Lucasfilm Pirates versus Reality TNT slashers VH1 historical drama Britbox psychological thriller WGN movie E3 USA comic natural history miniseries First Reviews independent 2016 Epix BBC Shudder Chernobyl sports AMC Marathons El Rey Horror TCA Animation elevated horror Rom-Com ITV Pride Month venice green book Sundance Now Fall TV scary movies 45 PBS Comedy Central theme song 2018 20th Century Fox SDCC kids stop motion period drama TCM IFC Nominations south america screen actors guild DC Comics Comic Book PlayStation Schedule ghosts Ellie Kemper romantic comedy series Biopics zero dark thirty war documentaries Cartoon Network Marvel Television Mudbound robots zombie BET biography YA 24 frames Sundance OneApp satire cults FXX Awards Tour 71st Emmy Awards NBC YouTube Red Emmy Nominations crossover Teen Tumblr concert Apple TV Plus TCA Winter 2020 Family Netflix Mindy Kaling football Writers Guild of America VICE all-time comics news werewolf GIFs transformers spider-man Freeform what to watch Syfy Oscars 4/20 Sneak Peek Amazon Prime cancelled television dragons