May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
October 20, 2008
(Ed. Note: Originally published at Film-Think.)
I am baffled that Mary was not distributed in conjunction to either The Passion of the Christ or The Da Vinci Code hysteria after it played to acclaim at the Venice 2005 festival, even taking the SIGNIS award there. It would have been a helpful point of reference for either film at the time, putting their spiritual and aesthetic excesses into surprisingly authentic perspective. In a past Ferrara blog-a-thon, Girish referred to Ferrara’s good films as a “wondrous messiness.” The points at which they inevitably stumble in artistic credibility are where they emerge punch-drunk with Ferrara’s overtly Catholic sense of sin and grace. I have never actually liked Ferrara’s work, but I have also had a difficult time forgetting some of his most memorable images – such as the bad Lieutenant at the feet of Christ, which as a Jungian prefiguration of Gibson’s Jesus is one of the most effective Christ images in modern American cinema. Mary is likewise burdened by Ferrara’s “messiness,” but this time that messiness works with the grain of his characters in a realistic scramble for faith and redemption. Faith is messy, the search for the historical Jesus is messy, and fortunately, so is Ferrara’s film.
The film opens in the tomb of Jesus as described in John 20. Mary Magdalene is weeping, she sees the two angels, and then she sees the risen Jesus. She cries: “Rabboni,” and the scene closes, the cameras cut back to reveal the set and Marie Palesi (Juliet Binoche) having a difficult time stepping out of her character as these last scenes are shot. Tony Childress (Matthew Modine), directing the film This is My Blood in which he plays Jesus, is dismayed that she won’t hop on the plane with him back to New York. The film cuts to a Charlie Rose type talk show hosted by Theodore Younger (Forest Whitaker), running a series of talks about the life of Christ. He is talking with Amos Luzzato about Jesus as a controversial Jewish figure, problematic for a people at the edge of an empire. In this first group of scenes, the different settings and characters that cycle through the rest of the film are introduced. There are three characters: An actress, a director, and a talk-show host. There are three settings: a film, a talk show, and the real world events that bring these three characters together. And there are generally three cinematic modes: the real world story in a crisp, deep focus, footage of people on TV or in Childress’ film, and documentary footage of current events in the Middle East. As the film burrows deeper and deeper into its three characters, these different cinematic modes begin to slip, often overlapping each other in transition shots and unexpected parentheses.
The Three Characters:
Much like Maria Falconetti after Dreyer’s Passion of the Joan of Arc, Marie Palesi is overwhelmed by her experience as Mary. After the film’s last scenes are shot, she gets lost among the sites in the Holy Land, only connected to the world through her cell phone. When she does talk to people her language is cribbed from her performance, steeped in the Gnostic thought forms latent in the texts she has been reciting verbatim in the film. In the Gospel of Mary, which is the predominant source text for Childress’ film dialogue, Mary is posed as apostola apostolorum(apostle to the apostles), an intermediary of a more comprehensive revelation of who Jesus was. Marie progressively takes on Mary’s mantle, exhorting the few that she comes into contact with to realize their Gnostic Christological potential. Tony Childress is a broad reference to Mel Gibson. The historical revision of This Is My Blood is considerably different than that of The Passion, but what connects the two is the director’s manic insistence the film is necessary, a corrective to a prevailing secular sentiment that has sidelined the core significance of Jesus as an historic spiritual icon. As controversy grows and the detractors begin to appear, Childress begins to buckle beneath the weight of his own vision. And there is a sense in which both of these characters are simply there to support the story of Theodore Younger, a talk show host who becomes personally involved in his series on Mary and the Historical Jesus. He is at the top of the ratings heap and has a child on the way with his young wife, but an affair sends him into a tailspin that exposes points of contact with this Jesus he has been intellectually considering with public radio aplomb. He has been talking to scholars, watching Childress’ film, speaking intermittently with Marie/Mary over the phone, and wandering through the hospital chapel. The centrifugal force of all these connections eventually brings him to his knees, and in a remarkable John 17 prayer he begs that God would intervene. This scene closes on the first (I think only) glimpse of the crucified Christ in the film, Theodore bent in anguish before the icon now bulging with significance.
The Three Settings:
1. The Film: This Is My Blood is a literal rendition of the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Mary. There are five separate cuts of the film interspersed throughout Mary that are thematically linked with the progression of each character arc. The first scene is the Johannine account of Mary in the Garden, Binoche memorably gasping “Rabboni” when she recognizes Jesus. The second scene is that which we see in the Gospel of Mary, during which Mary shares a vision and the other disciples argue about its significance and her relationship to Jesus. This dialogue is straight from G Mary 5:8-11 and 9:2-8. The third scene is Mary speaking from G Mary 8:10-11. I am not sure what the fourth scene corresponds to, Mary and a group of disciples in a boat, I am assuming on the Sea of Galilee. I feel unscholarly in not tracking this down. The fifth scene is right from John 14 and other imagery scattered throughout the Upper Room Discourse. This Is My Blood seems fairly unremarkable excepting Marie’s performance, her personal interest in the narrative is easy to see. Binoche also acted as an actress in Haneke’s Code Unknown, and the same eerie parallax she developed in Haneke’s film is also layered here over Mary’s presence in the film as a spiritual compass. As Ferrara hops frenetically back and forth between the film, the talk show, and real life, This Is My Blood serves as its quiet center – its metanarrative for lack of a better term.
2. Talk Show: In the talk show Theodore interviews Amos Luzzato, Ivan Nicoletto, and Jean Yves Leloup (who is an eminent French scholar on the Gospel of Mary that had written an earlier dramatization declined by Binoche). These interviews drill down into the historical context of Jesus and the many gospels written about him, and we start to get a sense of why the Gospel of Mary is so important. This historical subtext to the film is underscored by an appearance of Elaine Pagels, one of the most widely published scholars on non-canonical Christianity. She describes Mary’s role in the Gnostic gospels as an alternative figure to the one presented in the canonical gospels. The good news in the Gnostic gospels is that Jesus is not as ontologically distinct from you or me as he is presented and self-described in Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John; he embodies an attainable spiritual ideal distinct from the high Christology and ecclesiology embedded in dominant forms of early Christian practice. In the Gospel of Mary, Mary is posed as an antithesis to Peter as founder of the institutional church, in which revelation and information about Jesus is controlled by apostolic pedigree. Mary Magdalene, however, is the figurehead for an alternative historical and theological tradition in which continued inspiration beyond the proto-orthodox gospel traditions described Jesus as a Gnostic redeemer, an ideal model of Gnostic spirituality. In the ascendancy of Petrine orthodoxy, Mary, her visions, and a feminine brand of early Christian thought were lost in the mist of abraded papyrus. (Koester’s Ancient Christian Gospels is the first book one sees on Pagel’s desk, like a footnote to her monologue. One can quickly see the degree of breadth and variance in the Mary tradition in a debated logion of G Thomas. 114: Simon Peter said to him, “Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.” Jesus said, “I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.”)
It is this Mary that Childress’ film is intent on reclaiming, along with her redefinition of Jesus’ abiding significance for society. In the final talk show Theodore interviews Tony. But now that Theodore has in his own way now experienced suffering, he can only respond to Tony’s ideological bravado with incredulity. Childress exclaims, “It’s me getting nailed to the cross, it’s the whole society getting nailed to the f-ing cross” Whitaker unexpectedly turns the tables on him, asking, “Have you been nailed to the cross, Tony?” – suggesting that Tony in real life doesn’t equate to his role as Jesus, at least not the Jesus that Theodore has recently encountered. When Tony complains that all the picketing outside his film displays a general lack of intelligence among the public, Whitaker calls it a statement of faith, a recognition that we don’t need to keep reworking the story of Jesus because the basics remain regardless of the language we use to express them. Right on cue, Marie calls in and interjects a few Marian aphorisms about her conversion. In this final talk show exchange we can see that Theodore has come full circle with Marie. He started out as an interested bystander, but has now ended up as a fervent apologist for a de-institutionalized Jesus, a figure cheapened by Tony’s directorial antics.
Real Life: In real life, Marie is wandering through Christian and Jewish traditions, Theodore is dealing with his sin and confusion, and Tony continues to indulge his misguided zeal. Mary lurches on desperate for peace.
The Three Modes
The real world storyline is crisp, bound in deep focus, and transitions in brilliant dissolves. In many shots of traveling through the city at night, the camera slopes off in reflective angles, Lynchian rumbles in the soundtrack. The TV and movie footage are as expected, at the beginning an aloof universe of history and discussion that are distanced from those who are talking about it. They are framed by shots of production assistants and set changes. But lurking throughout the film are bits of hand held news and documentary footage of recent events in the Middle East. One of these interludes is that famous footage of an Iraqi man caught in a crossfire, shielding his child behind a small wall. Over time the modes that mark out what is real, what is film, and what is random documentary footage become blurred. In a phone conversation between Theodore and Marie, Theodore is in a tight, deep focused shot while Marie on the other end is in a medium hand held shot as she walks down a Jerusalem alley. This nonsense disparity between their two represented realities is part of the messiness of Ferrara’s direction. When bombs go off during a Sabbath ritual, Binoche runs out of the house into grainy night footage of the street in disarray. The increasing frequency of this kind of shifting seems clumsy, but it provides an intense foil to the cool tones of the Upper Room Discourse stuck into the latter half of the film. As this slippage in the film increases, so does its potential for effectiveness as a spiritual journey – Theodore becoming lost before he can be found. Ferrara makes us experience this dislocation with him.
I don’t even know where to start actually talking about Mary. As someone who has spent years in the historical issues addressed by the film (I wrote my masters thesis as a critique of that book right there on Pagels’ desk), I am connected to its subtext. And as someone who has spilled a lot of ink on “non-canonical Jesus films,” I am drawn to Ferrara’s religious conscience as it reveals itself in the passionate visual structure of the film. It is born in Kazantzakis’ religious imagination; it is rooted culturally in Scorcese’s Last Tempatation. And it is one that I completely disagree with on historical, theological, and ideological grounds. The film’s discussion of the Gospel of Mary is correct historically, it is an excellent representation of that movement in early Christianity. This is what makes it such an important film. But it is not one that I think has a greater theological significance than that of the canonical record. The Gospels of Mary and Thomas force one to take a confessional stance on the historical records, and mine accords to that which through so many streams is deposited in the rich delta of Irenaeus’ apology. (Summary: I am a conservative, Schlatter-reading, Papias-musing NT critic.) But rather than dissuade me from representations of Jesus that refer to sources other than the canon, or occur in contexts that have little to do with Christian thought, this historical assessment of the gospels has driven me to appreciate the ways in which culture and history talk about Jesus. Jesus’ historical identity is bound up with his textual identity, and many of these texts were born in conflict. I don’t think we can distance contemporary representations of Jesus from the same canon-forming and identity-forming processes that occurred in the first few centuries. Rather we must be engaging, deciphering, and categorizing the ways that culture describes Jesus and his ideas. Ultimately, we know little about what we think about Jesus until we know how it fits into the way culture is currently talking about Jesus. This, I think, is the kind of cultural criticism that the canon logically points us towards. One emboldened by difference rather than made defensive by it. (I am tempted to say even realized in difference, but that is a harder discussion.)
Mary is not just about a Marian reading of Christian spirituality either. It is literally about the possibility of making a Jesus film. Marie is a character caught in the throes of Christian art, having been irrevocably formed by that which she only sought to imitate. Likewise, Mary charts the way a Jesus film affects those that are in creative and commercial proximity to it. And Mary begins to address why I think these “non-canonical Jesus films” I am always blabbering about are so important, as they tap into the difficulty of talking about Jesus in contemporary terms. Even when attempts fail, or diverge significantly from my ideology, they provide new contours and leave empty tracks that broaden our perspective of how the gospels can be read today. If Ferrara’s film hadn’t turned out so messy, it would not have been a film about Jesus.