Abel Ferrara's Jesus Story Mary is a Holy Mess—and His Best in Years

Twists of faith

That rough beast slouching into town for a week's run at Anthology Film Archives is Abel Ferrara's 2005 Mary—an anguished metaphysical roundhouse that leaves the wildly erratic filmmaker sitting on the floor while paradoxically affording his most cogent outing in several years.

Cogent to the eye, that is: Ferrara begins by visualizing the resurrection of Jesus Christ in rich chiaroscuro, then turns this miracle of miracles into a movie location somewhere in Italy. Unable to break character, the actress who plays Mary Magdalene (Juliette Binoche) ignores the entreaties of her obnoxious, egomaniacal director (Matthew Modine, channeling Ferrara) to leave with him for the airport. "Fine!" he explodes at the God-besotten actress. "Fucking go to Jerusalem."

She does as Ferrara cuts to New York, capital of the fallen world and city of eternal night, for a TV roundtable discussion led by Forest Whitaker, the Charlie Rose–like host of a serious talk show. No less than the brash, obnoxious Modine character, who not only directed This Is My Blood but also played Jesus, Whitaker is a seeker. He's eager to discuss the movie—which, combining aspects of Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ and Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ—is shaping up as a Very Important free-speech issue.

Whitaker is also amazed by the sincerity of Binoche's performance. In fact, he's obsessed with it. Cheating on his pregnant wife (Heather Graham), the frantic TV host repeatedly reaches out to Binoche. Cut from the darkness of Whitaker's media hall of mirrors to where Binoche sits beatificating in Jerusalem's bright sunshine.

Tightly framed and tightly wound, Mary is a claustrophobic, incandescent, nutty 83 minutes with everyone in the cast teetering on the ledge of madness. Economical as it is, the movie is even its own double bill. The New York soap operatics are enlivened with regular excerpts from This Is My Blood. Actually, it's a triple bill: Whitaker's show enables a number of essayistic interludes with biblical scholars like Elaine Pagels while Binoche's blissful wanderings allow for some documentary studies of old Jerusalem.

True to his code, Ferrara churns these elements into an apocalyptic mishmash: Birth, terrorism, shocking admissions! Modine confronts Whitaker, both hunched over the interview table, confounding his host by claiming that while his vision is universal ("It's the whole society being nailed to the fucking cross"), his motives are mercenary ("Hey—that Mel Gibson movie made a billion dollars!"). Meanwhile, This Is My Blood is picketed by Jews and Christian fundamentalists alike, while, protesting "We got lines around the block in Philly," the director battles security guards attempting to evacuate the audience.

Anarchy is loosed upon the world, or at least the world premiere. Is there really a bomb in the theater—or is it just the movie? Modine barricades himself in the projection booth, unclear whether This Is My Blood is a terrorist threat to society or vice versa. "The best lack all conviction," Yeats noted of the apocalypse, "while the worst are full of passionate intensity."

 
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