Monday, March 27, 2006


Unfamiliar with the bulk of Abel Ferrara's oeuvre, any appreciation I might muster would have to be anticipatory. And coincidentally enough, the movie I most hope to be included in the roster of this year's San Francisco International Film Festival is Abel Ferrara's Mary. I'm attending the press conference tomorrow morning and will let you know if my wish is granted.

There's no reason why any of you should know this, but I have been researching Mary Magdalen for over 20 years! I was furious when Dan Brown successfully cashed in with The DaVinci Code; it was the book I should have written, though my integrity tethered me from scripting a potboiler. Procrastination is a bitter pill to digest, but there you have it. I guess why Ferrara's Mary blipped on my radar was because it reminded me not to give up the ghost (holy or not), that the information can and will survive any sole project on Mary Magdalen, and that it's just possible that Ferrara's Mary might be a much more important film than Ron Howard's DaVinci Code.

For starters, Mary won the Jury Grand Prix at the 2005 Venice Film Festival. Leslie Felperin's Variety review claims Ferrara's "Catholic angstfest" is "a sincere grapple with faith and redemption in cynical times." Apparently, Ferrara takes a strong look at the role of faith in artistic creation. Mary is the story of Marie Palesi (Juliette Binoche), an actress of international renown who becomes inspired by the life of Mary Magdalene after playing her in a film.

But what especially excited me about the Variety review was the mention that Gnostic scholar Elaine Pagels would be playing herself in the movie. In my 20s and 30s I had the honor of being a "full scholar" with the San Francisco C.G. Jung Institute. This afforded me several opportunities to study under Elaine Pagels, and if it weren't for her engaging explorations of early Christian history, I probably would have dropkicked the religion long before now. Pagels introduced me to the Gnostic gospels, to The Gospel of Thomas (smuggled out of Egypt by Dutch scholar Gilles Quispel at C.G. Jung's behest), and The Gospel of Mary Magdalen—two documents that have impacted my sensibility irrevocably—making me question the hierarchical convenience of the Catholic apostolic succession and, thereby, the institutional Church. The insinuation that Pagels' voice will be profiled in Ferrara's Mary, along with scholars Jean-Yves Leloup and Amos Luzzatto—albeit in a staged forum—assures me that Magdalen will be presented as Apostola Apostolorum, namely the "Apostle to the Apostles."

One of the main dramatic tensions that Pagels has culled out of these ancient texts is an ideological adversity between Mary Magdalen and the disciple Peter. Pagels taught that Peter represented inspiration through the institutional church, thus Peter was given the keys, and the boys club was begun. Magdalen, however, was a symbol of continual inspiration, or immanent divinity. Once the Church achieved power it did its best to demote Magdalen's standing and to disempower the notion that divinity could be accessed directly through personal experience; they insisted priestly intercession was requisite. One only needs to read Dostoyevsky's "The Grand Inquisitor" to intuit their logic. And one need only read Helen Ellerebe's The Dark Side of Christian History to determine what this political stance has wrought.

According to Variety, portions of Ferrara's Mary show her not as the popularly-conceived prostitute "but rather a full fledged disciple locked in a power struggle with fellow-disciple Peter." Apparently this is where Juliette Binoche's performance excels in intensity. I'm hoping this struggle will be lifted directly from the text of The Gospel of Thomas, wherein Peter challenges Magdalen; writing doesn't get much better! Especially with regard to presenting the jockeying for power; signature to the establishment of the Christian church in its early centuries.

As appears to be his custom, Ferrara employs frequent cinematic citation to texture his film. Obvious references to Mel Gibson's The Passion are characterized (under the pseudonym of This Is My Blood). I remember being interviewed by one of our local television stations when I came out of the first screening of The Passion here in San Francisco. "What do you think," they asked. I responded, "Mel Gibson has succeeded in turning the Biblical Passion into a Hollywood horror movie." My only concern with Mary is that Ferrara will likewise succumb to rendering the Catholic horrific. "[I]t would seem," Variety concludes, "Ferrara's aim here is to fashion a spiritual horror movie of sorts, one without the devil, a monster or bad guy as such, but still drenched in an atmosphere of dread and anxiety." Which would be unfortunate. Because the story of Mary Magdalen is one of the most hopeful I have ever read. It allows each soul a worldly sovereignty even as it is passionately enamored with Spirit.

Jeremy Heilman at MovieMartyr should be invited into this blogathon. He opines that Mary is Ferrara's "most explicitly spiritual movie to date", a serious-minded film "about the confusion and anxiety that mark a true inquisition into one's faith." He states: "Mary certainly upends itself in its quest to capture that disquiet." And mollifies Ferrara's foray into horror by emphasizing "the idea of pure devotion [is] a scary, all-consuming state to those who haven't yet taken the plunge. That anxiety makes it the perfect response to the media frenzy that surrounded Mel Gibson's movie last year. Ferrara's aggressive style makes this fear palpable."

Although I had no objection to the lovely Monica Belucci portraying Mary Magdalen in Mel Gibson's The Passion, her characterization couldn't hold a candle to the depiction of Magdalen in the unfortunately-neglected The Gospel of John (the other Jesus movie out at the time). What made that film singularly intriguing is that it took The Gospel of John verbatim while at the same time showing developments that John did not bother to mention, providing history between the lines so to speak, so that Magdalen's attendance at the Last Supper implies her standing among the disciples, and her invaluable role in the ministry of Jesus. DaVinci knew what he was painting afterall.

Jason Grimshaw provides a detailed synopsis for the IMdb. This sounded promising: "Before Ferrara's Mary was even thought of, Juliette Binoche had already been approached to play Mary Magdalene by the historian Jean-Yves Leloup who translated the Gospel according to Mary Magdalene and was working on a dramatization. At the time, Binoche declined this offer. Today it is partly thanks to her and Jean-Yves Leloup that Mary exists. The historian's dramatization forming the film within a film."

With regard to that practice of a film within a film, another blogsite that should be invited in to the Ferrara blogathon is Notes on Cinema, wherein this stylistic motif is mentioned: "As always with our man Abel, we get a movie about a movie. This time we have just that, but also a TV show, precisely about a movie (notice the three layers—movie about a tv show about a movie)."

So there you have it, an anticipatory entry if not a critical one. If Mary is included among the films shown at this year's San Francisco International Film Festival, per my devout prayers, I promise to come back with a personal perspective.

03/29/06 ADDENDUM: Unfortunately, Mary is not in the program line-up for this year's international film festival so I shall have to keep my votives lit that an opportunity will arise to see it on the big screen. If not there, then assuredly on dvd.

Since posting this entry, Harry Tuttle at Screenville has rallied with a killer post countering my anticipatory enthusiasm with firsthand disappointment in Ferrara's film. "In a cinema era without creativity," Harry writes, "should we acclaim a film for the unusual ambition of its content while its making is so lame? A good script full of interesting concepts pre-exists the film but doesn't guarantee it's achievement." Notwithstanding his reservations, his analysis of the film makes me all the more ready to view it. If I am to be disappointed, so be it; at least I will be informed.

Harry argues an astute and salient distinction when he discerns: "The core of the film revolves around the [adulterous] life of Ted, and the coincidental premature delivery of his wife's baby, suggesting all sin carries dreadful repercussions in one's life, like a demonstration to sell faith with the fear of punishment (which is precisely the conservative conception of the Catholic Church opposed to the humanist approach to religion proposed by Mary Magdalene's inheritance)." In effect, then, it sounds as if Ferrara—in his attempt to honor the teachings of Mary Magdalen—has missed their most gentle albeit radical strength.

Harry's post further provides the film's official website. The website contains a great glimpse into the making of the film wherein one of the talking heads affirms Girish's perception by stating: "When any innovation is introduced into an art form, it doesn't look like innovation; it looks like a mess." Additionally, he provides a link to Emmanuel Burdeau's December 2005 Cahiers du Cinema essay (in French) and Wikipedia's excellent compendium of Magdalenian information.


HarryTuttle said...

Great comprehensive pre-viewing press review this is. I've done the same reading of various reviews available online but after the screening, to write my ferrara-thon entry now. I saw the film last december and I admit the theoretical debates inserted in the film didn't last in my memory as well as the images.
The formulation of your anticipation is as much interesting as a post-film feedback, since you verbalize what forms in your imagination from written words only.
Your reading of the film will be particularly helpful given the lifelong studies you've researched on teh subject.
I'm not sure Ferrara is quite the spiritual man to explore this kind of metaphysics conundrum...

Thanks for the precautionary framework to understand better Mary Magdalene. I'm looking forward to your review of the film once you've seen it.

Michael Guillen said...

There was a time, Harry, when I would never read a review before seeing a movie. I wanted to be able to go into a movie without any preconceived notions or biases. Only then would I read reviews to see if my own impressions were idiosyncratic or confirmed by others. When the frequency of my writing about movies increased, I began to read reviews in depth after I viewed a film to not waste anybody's time by saying what had already been said, or by at least making an effort to say it in a way that was slightly different. Otherwise why bother?

These days, having access to sometimes up to three press screenings a day, I forfeit nothing by entering the theater armed with the observations of others. They frequently help me to appreciate a film better.

My favorite remains however to be one of the first or one of the few to write about a movie. That happens rarely but is always welcome.

What has become important to me is to break through what I consider to be the prevailing norm in film commentary: the thumbs up thumbs down formula that has miseducated audiences to approach a movie with "grand embraces or petty dismissals", to paraphrase Joni Mitchell.

When I was younger Joe Campbell taught me about those snarling Japanese temple guardians that were purposely meant to frighten off the unworthy from accessing the temples inner sanctum. I've begun to think that the thumbs-up thumbs-down approach to film criticism is precisely aligned with those temple guardians. How to get past them? How to write through?