Film Review: Mary

Cult director Abel Ferrara bites off more than he can chew with this murky, unfocused exploration of religion and faith in the age of media madness.

Abel Ferrara is a wild card among contemporary filmmakers. His work blends exploitation-flick sensationalism—the director’s stories unfold in furious jolts of sex, drugs and violence—with an auteur’s aesthetic meticulousness and obsession with specific settings (New York’s underbelly) and subjects (power, corruption and human depravity). He gets A and B-listers like Harvey Keitel, Christopher Walken, Lili Taylor, Annabella Sciorra and Madonna to do risky bits in movies not many people see and critics rarely get fired up about. His stuff is distinctive and flashy, yet has never really made it beyond the fringes of American independent cinema.

Part of this is because Ferrara’s movies are high on style and frustratingly low on substance. Even his meatiest efforts, the luridly entertaining Bad Lieutenant and a hushed ensemble piece about a dysfunctional mafia family, The Funeral, are stronger as exercises in atmosphere than as character studies or examinations of themes. The director is more comfortable peppering his films with gory visual flourishes (blood spurting out of a bullet-ridden body, a needle sinking into flesh) and operatic spasms of anguish (the tormented howl is a Ferrara hero’s trademark mode of expression) than he is giving them real meaning.

Ferrara’s difficulty locating compelling ideas beneath his splashy execution is more problematic than ever in his latest release (made in 2005), Mary, an examination of faith in the age of media and materialism. It was only a matter of time before Ferrara devoted an entire movie to religion—his characters are often drowning in Catholic guilt—but as it turns out, he isn’t quite up to the task. The director tones down his usual narrative tics (there’s no sex, no drugs, and little violence in Mary), only to find himself struggling to come up with anything original or even coherent to say.

The movie opens with a slick filmmaker, Tony Childress (Matthew Modine), wrapping a biblical drama starring an actress named Marie (Juliette Binoche) as Mary Magdalene. It appears that Marie has experienced some sort of religious epiphany—or psychological trauma—during the shoot, and when it comes time to strike the set, she panics and impulsively takes off for Jerusalem. It’s an intriguing set-up, but instead of following Marie on her cryptic spiritual journey, Ferrara shifts the action to New York. (Those who think Woody Allen is out of touch with his hometown should check out the desolate, paranoid fantasy Gotham of Mary. Perhaps Ferrara, who now mostly lives in Rome, hasn’t spent much time in the Big Apple since Giuliani had his way with it?)

The movie at this point zeroes in on Ted Younger (Forest Whitaker), a TV journalist hosting a week-long primetime special about Jesus from a historical perspective (apparently Ferrara hasn’t watched American television lately, either). Younger will, of course, contact both smarmy director Childress and newly pious actress Marie for insight. And since this is an Abel Ferrara film, the three main characters will be jostled by spurts of melodrama, mostly involving Younger’s cheating on his pregnant wife (Heather Graham) and the Mel Gibson-esque controversy surrounding Childress’ film.

As a study of the fluctuating ways people position themselves in regards to faith, Mary is excessively schematic: The philandering Younger is the sinner; Marie, evolving in Jerusalem into a kind of pan-religious guru, is the saint; Childress, who admits to making a religious movie for the cash, is the cynic. These people never become more than allegorical stand-ins for various states of spiritual receptiveness, and Ferrara manipulates them with a heavy hand: Modine’s opportunistic “artiste” is a flat-out caricature, and Whitaker’s infidelity is punished with a plot twist that sends him into a spiritual crisis of the most predictable kind. As for Binoche, the actress’s haunted, otherworldly intensity is the best thing in the movie, but as written, her character is more concept than flesh-and-blood human being. If Ferrara had followed Marie’s whacked-out rebirth as a believer instead of having her periodically call in from Jerusalem, Mary might have been a more interesting film.

There are fascinating glimmers throughout Mary—including a lovely final shot—but faced with his most ambitious subject to date, Ferrara overreaches. He ponders the link between religion and media (Childress and Younger are invested in lucrative projects about Jesus, though they have no religious convictions) and religion and politics (Younger watches footage of a Palestinian boy cowering as Israeli soldiers shoot at him; a later Jerusalem scene shows a Passover dinner disrupted by a suicide bombing), yet never follows through on either. He also shows us sequences of Childress’ movie in which Mary Magdalene is portrayed not as a prostitute, but as an active disciple. As for the meaning of a scene in which Younger’s limo is attacked by a group of Brooklyn homeboys and a few stray Hasidic Jews, anybody’s guess is as good as mine. One is left with the impression of a director moving in various directions and coming up with a handful of incomplete ideas and half-baked implications.

Mary is ultimately too odd to be unwatchable, but it’s such a dreary, muddled piece of work that it only partly holds our attention. As adept as he is at conjuring up moods of anxiety and dread, Ferrara can’t fully untangle the strands of his story or make his scattershot observations shine through with the clarity they call out for. One walks out of Mary nostalgic for Abel Ferrara films of yore, full of guns, orgies and cocaine. The characters may have been behaving badly, but at least the filmmaker was having fun.