Abel Ferrara's latest film 'Mary' is a thought-provoking investigation of religious redemption in a cynical, intolerant world. Heavy on theological ideas, the story centers around three characters struggling with their own spirituality. For added complexity, there's a film-inside-a-film as well.
On the cynical end of the trinity is filmmaker Tony Childress (Matthew Modine), who has just directed and starred in a film about Jesus, called 'This is my Blood'. If this reminds you of Mel Gibson's 'The Passion of the Christ' it's entirely intentional. Ferrara's portrayal of Childress' self-assured righteousness, with no room for doubt, is a direct attack on Gibson. ('The Passion' in fact angered Ferrara into making 'Mary'.)
On the other hand of the spiritual spectrum is actress Marie Palesi (Juliette Binoche), who played Mary Magdalene in Childress' film and became so obsessed with her role that she went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, effectively abandoning her acting career. At first we may view Marie as 'abnormal', but as the story progresses her saintly devotion becomes a pivotal force.
Interestingly, in a number of scenes from 'This is my Blood' that we get to see, Mary Magdalene plays a central role. The scenes quote extensively from the 'Gospel of Mary Magdalene', a second century Gnostic text which presents Mary Magdalene not as a prostitute but as the foremost among Jesus' disciples, to whom his most secret teachings are imparted. The Gospel has Mary teaching - an idea fundamentally subversive to the Judeo-Christian tradition - and stressing individual redemption in a chaotic world.
In between the extremes of Childress and Marie is unscrupulous New York talk show host Ted Younger (Forest Whitaker), who is making a tv series about the historical Jesus. (Here, several real-life theologicians are shown discussing aspects of religion, adding further to the range of ideas crammed into 'Mary'.) While Younger tries to get Marie on his show, a family crisis forces him to reevaluate his own stance on faith - not as theoretical talk on his show but as an urgent, existential need.
Underlying all this soul-searching is a frightening atmosphere of intolerance, which erupts into unexpected violence more than once. Fanatics throw stones at Younger's car, protests at Childress' film lead to a bomb scare, and in Jerusalem Passover is disrupted by a bomb explosion.
Marie emerges amid the growing confusion as the most calm and sane character, saying simply: "Jesus inspired Mary Magdalene, and she inspired me." Ultimately, Marie, in turn, will inspire Younger to change his life, in a heartfelt monologue reminiscent of 'Bad Lieutenant'.
Even if 'Mary' is top-heavy with ideas, its approach to spiritual matters is humble and open-minded - a welcome alternative in these polarized times.