Within the first fifteen minutes of Mary director Abel Ferrara has already folded five layers of reality onto one another. The film begins with Mary Magdalene (Juliette Binoche) entering the tomb of Jesus and finding it empty, moments before the risen Jesus reveals himself to her. The shock of his appearance rends Marie—the actress playing Mary in the movie This Is My Blood—from her sleep, and in a daze she wanders the set of the film production. Was what we first saw a vision, a dream, or a scene from the film? Before we can tease out the meaning, Ferrara is already vigorously on the move again: waking from the dream but not fully out of it, Marie wanders through the Italian village location as the production is being dismantled, and Tony Childress (Matthew Modine), who both directed This Is My Blood and plays Jesus, insists she come with him on the next flight to New York—the shoot is over. But gripped by her vision, Marie insists on going not to New York but to Jerusalem. This dense prologue, moving in almost mystical ways between layers of drama, is the beginning of Mary’s portrait of existence as lives unnaturally laid on top of another other, until everyone and everyone’s story beg the same questions.
Cut to one year later, to the New York television studio of Ted Younger (Forest Whitaker), who is hosting a show investigating the life of Jesus. Ted, like Marie, juggles a life of acting, anxious dreams, and harsh reality in awkward, jolting segments. The black void of the on-camera interviews of Ted's show, the heavenly Heather Graham—who play's Ted's pregnant wife isolated in the couple’s borough apartment—and the sinful, sinister nights Ted spends traveling between the studio and his home all overlap onto one another, jostling not for coherence or unity, but for a kind if simultaneity—a life in crisis. When a car ride home from Childress' premiere get randomly attacked by New York hoods (a tremendous, jarring scene), when the violence of birth cannot be distinguished from the violence of a home invasion, and in the many ambient and forbidding sequences of slick, anonymous black office buildings passing through the night, Mary conjures spiritual and social hysteria caught in the moment.
Going to such lengths of exposition in describing a film serves only to showcase just how far Abel Ferrara—one of the most, if not the most marginalized of contemporary American directors, cruelly and unjustly—will go to craft his art. I purposefully say the word craft because this director, perhaps—again—more than any other American working today, immediately strikes the novice viewer as precisely craftless, a series of nearly dissonant shifts in tone and dramatics from scene to scene, and within scenes too. Dialog can ring clunky as a mismatched set of barbells; style can flare up for expressionistic tremors only to simmer down in awkwardly matched shot/reverse-shot conversations. In a word, the man's films are cinematically aggravating. But this is praise—strong praise, in the context. To reach for an easy cliché, the films of Abel Ferrara immediately go for the throat. The friction between everything—between the dialog and the actors, the style and the story, and all in between—the friction catches flame and sets films like Mary on fire in ways no American film before or, likely, after, will ever exhibit. It is cinema as psychic energy, a fundamentally emotional and spiritual force that uses story, actors, and plot as elemental forces to throw into tumult, not to make into a staid, “plausible” drama.
As Juliette Binoche floats as if freed from the physical world’s gravity through scenes from Childress’ movie—or are they her visions?—and through Jerusalem, Whitaker's heavy frame remains pulled forever downward to the hell that is contemporary New York. Yet Mary is not quite like Bad Lieutenant or King of New York, two of Ferrara's best known films (though each over a decade old) and quintessential “movie” interpretations of New York. Those movies focus on the nitty-gritty streets and backrooms of the city, but Mary, like Marie's candlelit dreams of This Is My Blood, and Ted's oneiric television program and upward gaze at the passing nocturnal office buildings of the city, is fundamentally contemplative. To be sure, the film shares with Ferrara’s entire cinema a brutal, menacing assertiveness, an inner anxiety and propulsion through the shadow side of life. But that energy is checked by Mary’s curt running time and, to again allude to Nicole Brenez' seminal monograph on the director, Ferrara’s technique of folding different images of the same thoughts, the same questions, over and over one another until the original impression, the original thought is fundamentally transformed. So we sit back the harsh chill—the simultaneous energies unleashed force us out of the scene and into a mode of comparison and synthesis. Into one of contemplation.When Ted questions the human and the spiritual in Jesus on his television show, when Marie leaves her fame as an actress for a life wandering between the Middle East and her "visions,” when Tony Childress fights to get his film viewed without any pre-judgment, locking himself in the projection booth, and, ultimately, when Ted's dark night life—both work and play—leaves his wife dangerously alone, Mary is brashly asking the same frightful things across simultaneous scenes. Simplistic dramatic arcs are forsaken for utter and complete immediacy; Ferrara, like Samuel Fuller, delivers earnestness with a rare, complete, and often frightening directness. The vitality, the fear and the ecstasy of such a style, of Mary, makes the cinema of Abel Ferrara one of utter necessity.
***Mary will be playing at the Anthology Film Archives, Oct. 17-23.