A moving film about religious faith and divinely-inspired love may not be what you expect from the director of King of New York and The Bad Lieutenant, but that’s exactly what New York filmmaker Abel Ferrara has delivered with the astonishing Mary. Beginning with a scene of Mary Magdalene discovering Jesus’s empty tomb on Easter morning and ending in modern-day New York with dynamic alternations of chaos and peace, the movie may have a fault or two, but its overall achievement is well nigh sublime.
That scene with Mary at the tomb is beautifully shot and, with the angel in the crypt asking Mary why she weeps and looks for the living among the dead, pregnant with emotion. Then, just beyond the rock that had been rolled away to allow entrance to the burial cave, we see the face of Jesus and it’s Matthew Modine. While Juliet Binoche’s impersonation of Mary has been perfectly apt, the presence of Modine appears as a jolt of blatant Hollywood casting. But that’s what it is; the next scene is of a large film crew shutting up shop after finishing location work on a movie called This Is My Blood, directed by and starring Hollywood filmmaker Tony Childress (Modine) and co-starring Binoche’s true character, Marie Palesi.
But when it’s time to go, Marie refuses to leave the location (which looks like Iitaly, but which the festival catalogue says is Israel). Playing the role has enveloped her in a spiritual crisis, and she goes off to Jerusalem.
Meanwhile, a year later in New York, we meet the earnest host of a television discussion show (think Charlie Rose with true intelligence), Ted Younger (Forest Whitaker). He’s hosting a series of shows on the life of Jesus (the movie uses what seem to be real-life scholars and theologians) with an emphasis on recent discoveries, including information that Mary Magdalene may have been a more prominent disciple of Christ than previously believed, a revisionist perspective that had informed This Is My Blood.
Ted, serious-minded as he is, has been neglecting his pregnant wife (Heather Graham), not just by working late but by having a fling with one of his show’s producers.
All of these characters, originally in separate orbits (even Ted and his wife seem disconnected), converge in a quiet maelstrom of spiritual turmoil even Tony, who is a classic Hollywood vulgarian. It’s difficult to put a finger on exactly how Ferrara manages to suffuse his film with such aching spirituality; perhaps it’s the ongoing contrast between the yearning ambitions of the characters and the violence that permeates the wider world (the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) and the personal one, and the use of prayer and meditation to combat it. Perhaps it’s just the director’s conviction, manifest in a whole new shooting style that emphasizes detached close-ups and two-shots, images that suggest a separation from the world without quite asserting a transcendent freedom. In any case, Mary is quite a movie.
You could also say that Terry Gilliam’s Tideland is quite a movie, but not in quite the same way. A film which is deliberately (I assume) grotesque, it moves from squalid junkie life, to irritatingly depictions of a ten-year-olds superficial imaginative life, and finally (and for about half its two-hour running time), a bizarre concoction of human mummification and placidly contemplate, not quite achieved pedophilia.
Young Jeliza-Rose (Jodette Ferland) spends her days helping her loving junky father (Jeff Bridges) shoot up and listening raptly as he rants about moving to Denmark, and doing the same for her Courtney Love-esque mother (Meg Tilly), who alternates between mawkish declarations of love for her daughter and viciously calling her a “bitch.” After mom dies a horrible, spasmodic death from an overdose, dad and Jeliza-Rose movie out to wheat country, where they take over the ruined country home of Jeliza-Rose’s grandmother. Shortly after their arrival, dad dies from an o-d, comfortably ensconced in a living room chair.
Jeliza-Rose, who is used to seeing her father zoned out on dope, continues to tend him for days and days, even to the point of shoving peanut butter into his mouth, which is clogged by a distended, purple tongue, and pushing in his stomach, to keep the post-mortem bloating from getting too severe (the result of her pushing results in flatulence). When not so occupied, she whiles away the time with long (very long) soliloquies to the heads of four decapitated dolls. She also makes friends with one of her neighbors, a mentally-damaged, spasmodic young man who spends a considerable amount of time running around in a wet suit and a Speedo, plotting to destroy one of the Amtrak trains that zoom through the fields, convinced, as he is, that they are monstrous sharks.
The young man, Dickens (Brendan Fletcher), has an older sister, Dell (Janet McTeer), who comports herself in a black dress and stockings while wearing a beekeeper’s veiled hat (she has a morbid fear of bees). Halfway between a witch and an extreme eccentric, Dell will eventually gut Jaliza-Roses’s decrepit corpse, and mummifies it, so that it can become a permanent fixture of Jaliza-Rose’s home (the little girl is all for this). More grotesquely, the increasingly mentally loose Jaliza-Rose, drifts steadily into a romantic-sexual relationship with Dickens, one which would reach consummation but for a sudden explosion outside the boudoir (the movie is not above introducing the occasional convenient interruption).
Gilliam shoots all this less than with his trademarked combination of imaginative effects (though there are some) and heightened reality than with conventionally composed (the movie is in scope) images that emphasize the isolation of the characters. One can’t conclude that this isolation is a benefit to the general population and that Gilliam’s imagination has really let him down. The grotesquerie aside, Tidelands has almost indescribably long, dull passages and lacks the slightly surreal touch that, though it could never make the close brush with pedophilia acceptable, might have at least left it provocatively fantastic and not painfully, intentionally ngrotesque.
Saturday’s screenings featured that rare bird, an American political satire. Thank You for Not Smoking, adapted from Christopher Buckley’s Washington novel and nicely directed by first-timer Jason Reitman, follows the amoral adventures of slick, likable, detestable Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart), spokesman and lobbyist for Big Tobacco. Naylor’s ability to blithely turn arguments in his own favor, a talent which leaves anti-smoking activists (including a U.S. senator played by William H. Macy) steaming mad, is hilarious as is much of the freewheeling chicanery that marks the movie’s progress. For narrative drive, there’s Naylor’s relationship with his own adoring son, whose pride in his dad both pleases and alarms dad. The movie reaches a highpoint both poignant and sourly pointed when Naylor is dispatched to the original cigarette cowboy (Sam Elliott), now riven with cancer and an anti-smoking activist. Naylor’s job is to offer a pay-off and the cowboy’s reactions will have you rollicking with cynicism.
The screening I attended was loaded with potential buyers of Thank You for Smoking, which as of yet has no American distributor. As wickedly funny as it is, it may never reach its native shores.
L’Annulaire (The Ring Finger) is a French film from Diane Bertrand that examines the emergingly sado-masochistic relationship between a young woman (lovely Olga Kurylenko) and the cool-to-cold scientist who hires her as his sole intake clerk at his strange scientific institute. Like many European films about such relationships (there are more than you might think), it is itself a cold and manipulative affair, a feature of sadism and thus, to me at least, off-putting.
Finally on Monday I saw The Well, a film about Orson Welles’s love affair with Spain. Welles’s own footage of the country was marvelous and the interviews with old colleagues and acquaintances were charming. But filmmaker Kristian Petri loaded the film with too much of his meanderings and so I left after an hour of the 105-minute opus.